The hype machine behind VR as the future of everything has been in full swing for awhile, but 2016 was the year viable consumer products became available. Here’s a simple guide, friendly to all price ranges and interest levels, of how to give VR this holiday season. (If you buy something because we told you about it, we may receive compensation from retail partners.)
On the most basic level, you can buy the extremely low tech Google Cardboard for anywhere between $5 to $20, which allows anyone with a fairly modern smart phone to try out virtual reality. Users can download popular VR apps — Chris Milk’s Within, New York Times VR, or JauntVR — strap their phone in the cardboard and watch many of the better 360 experiences that are available.
One important note: this is not like streaming a youtube. VR experiences that last only a few minutes are still enormous files (200 to 700 MBs) that need to be downloaded. Beyond needing wifi, Google Cardboard users will need to have unused storage space on their phone.
Samsung GearVR (Galaxy Smartphones)
The most exciting entry level way to get involved with VR are headsets that are made specifically for individual smartphones. The pioneer in this was GearVR, a partnership between Oculus and Samsung that allowed Samsung Galaxy owners to turn their smartphone into a very sophisticated VR headset for only $79, (but often on sale for $50).
One of the best advantages of the GearVR for virtual reality beginners is the Oculus Store. Instead of having to download individual apps, the Oculus interface allows you find all the best in VR experiences and games in one easy to use store, where you can easily toogle between all your options without having to take the headset off. The device is also padded where it meets your face, making it far more comfortable than google cardboard.
Google Daydream (Android Smartphones)
While Samsung and Oculus may have been the early leaders in turning your smartphone into a VR headset, Google took it to whole other level by introducing Google Daydream this Fall.
The Daydream headset is light, stylish and comfortable, while the daydream platform makes it easy for users to find great VR apps and play new VR games specifically designed for Daydream. Speaking of gaming, the headset comes with a controller (looks like an AppleTV remote) that works like a Wii handset, allowing for new and unique VR gaming experiences.
This is a no brainer $79 gift for Android smartphone owners. One very important note: Daydream is only compatible with new Android phones. Make sure you are buying this for someone who owns one of these new smartphones.
While no one is quite sure what Apple has cooking in the basements of Cupertino, one thing is clear: Tim Cook and crew aren’t rushing to jump into the early VR craze. Unlike Android and Samsung smartphone owners, those with an iPhone don’t have an Apple designed product and user interface to turn their device into a VR headset. This has left iPhone users downloading apps and relying on google cardboard or other third party options.
Of the growing third party solutions, the View Master VR for $40, is one of the better affordable options. Modeled after the view master photo viewers that our parents grew up using, the device has an old school feel. A more robust solution is the Zeiss VR One for $120.
One Important note: With iPhones now coming in huge plus sizes, be careful to order a third party solution that has the correct size tray to fit your phone.
While Hollywood is still grappling with what storytelling means in a VR world, the first person gaming world has no such problems cracking how to transfer their content into a 360 universe. Gamers just got their first viable, affordable, integrated solution with the recent release of a Playstation VR headset for $400. The headset is sure to be a huge seller this Christmas season as it brings Playstation console into the VR age.
If you know someone who is getting the Playstation headset for the holidays, there’s plenty of more affordable ways to help them accessorize their new systems: motion controllers, cool charging stations and of course games.
More Expensive Headsets with Room Scale
One of the more robust and satisfying consumer VR experiences is the HTC Vive. The quality of the experience is superior and is popular with gamers as it is powered by the popular Steam platform. What the expensive headset ($799) also offers is room scale — the ability to actually physically move inside the 360 environment.
One important thing to note about Vive, it works in conjunction with a powerful PC and room sensors. In other words you need to have a dedicated VR room in your home or office, complete with a powerful computer and wall mounted sensors that look like small speakers. If price isn’t an option and you have someone on your gift list who is very serious about VR, than this is a very good option.
The other consumer VR headset that came out in early 2016 is the Oculus Rift, which was bought and is being distributed by Facebook. Like the Vive, the Rift offers similar quality and room scale, while requiring external hardware. It’s also a little bit more affordable ($599) and the Oculus Store offers a wide array of free and paid experiences and games.