At some point it became a tech truism that 2016 was going to be VR's big breakout year. That may have been putting the cart before the horse, as virtual reality is still just getting off the ground, but this year did at least see headsets arriving on store shelves and gaining some mainstream awareness. Is VR on the holiday wishlist of you or a loved one? Let New Atlas help, as we look at some of the best VR gifts, in a variety of price ranges.
Under US$55: Entry-level and extras
If you own a recent Samsung Galaxy flagship, then here's the single best value in all of virtual reality: The original Gear VR can currently be had on Amazon for a mere $54. Just slide in a 2015-16 Galaxy phone to unlock a wealth of mobile VR experiences.
You'll want to pick up a gamepad to go with the Gear VR, and our top pick is the $45 SteelSeries Stratus XL. It not only works with Android-based VR like the Gear, but also high-end Windows PC options like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
For another cheapie idea, a Google Cardboard viewer like this $10 one lets you use an iPhone or Android phone to get a basic sense of what virtual reality is like. Just don't expect anywhere near the polish or content selection of the Gear VR. It is, after all, a half-step away from being a piece of trash.
If you or a loved one already owns one of the major headsets, a company called VR Cover makes a $20 product that's essentially VR's equivalent of a smartphone case. Put one of the covers over the face-padding to make things more comfortable and protect you from lingering sweat or built-up bacteria.
Some VR headsets have issues with lens fog, but you can fix that with chemicals made to defog scuba masks. One of the most economical and effective that we've used is the $6 Jaws Quick Spit: It's far from elegant (living up to its name, it looks like something that was hocked up) but after rubbing it into the lenses, you shouldn't have any more fog problems.
You can stuff the stockings of Oculus Rift owners with a $49 pair of Oculus Earphones; swap out the built-in over-ear headphones for these earbuds to get an upgraded Rift audio experience. We were skeptical about whether it was worth the good default headphones, but found the upgraded audio to be well worth the price.
Under $100: Newer mobile VR and other goodies
If you own a Samsung phone and want a roomier and more comfortable Gear VR, then the 2016 model ticks those boxes for $99. It's also more future-proofed than the original, as it works with not just the current micro-USB phones, but also future Samsung handsets with USB-C ports.
Owners of Google's Pixel and Pixel XL flagships can get a promising-but-limited mobile VR experience in the $79 Daydream View. On the downside, there are barely any games to play on it at the moment. On the bright side, that will grow over time, and the headset has a sleek fabric design. It also includes a remote-pointer in the box, which basically gives you the equivalent of a Wii remote inside of VR.
For those who already own the Oculus Rift and have pre-ordered its Touch motion controls (read on), an extra positional sensor can give the system 360-degree tracking for $79. While one sensor is bundled with the headset and a second with Touch, this optional third tracker makes sure there are no blind-spots when you turn your back to the first two. It's also good future-proofing for when developers start making 360-degree room-scale games for the Rift.
Some mobile VR games let you turn around in all directions: If you don't already own one, a spinning office chair (like this $65 one on Amazon) makes for a good companion.
$200: Oculus hand presence
Launching in early December, we expect the $199 Oculus Touch controls to be an essential purchase for Rift owners (which has been gamepad-only up to this point). The two tracked controllers are more ergonomic than the Vive's equivalent accessories, allowing you to grasp and manipulate virtual objects in a palm-hugging form factor.
Based on our event demos, Oculus Touch looks like a category-leading accessory that makes the Rift a completely different product than when it launched early this year.
$400: Eye candy or a fantasy workout
The Nvidia 1070 is hardly cheap, but until a few months ago you needed to spend $1,000 or more to get a gaming card this powerful. It should not only make your VR experiences look dazzling right now, but will also have you future-proofed for VR content in the coming years.
Also for $400, the VirZoom VR exercise bike is a fun way to burn calories while distracting you from your body's pain and fatigue. It's compatible with the Rift, Vive and PlayStation VR (which we excluded from this buying guide due to its poor motion control tracking).
$800: If you already have the PC
If you or your loved one has some geek-blood running through their veins and already owns a powerful-enough gaming PC, then simply buy either the HTC Vive ($799) or Rift + Touch ($798) and enjoy high-end virtual reality under the $1,000 mark.
You could get that price down to $599 by getting the Rift alone without the Oculus Touch controllers, but we recommend adding them – if not at the time of purchase, then soon after. At some point instinct is going to lead you to stand up, move around and put your body into it.
$1,500 and up: The total package
With Sony's PlayStation VR missing its mark in the more economical, consumer-friendly middle-ground, that leaves the expensive Oculus Rift and HTC Vive as our sole picks for today's purest virtual reality. They have high-end graphics, positional tracking (so when you lean or move your body, you also lean or move inside virtual worlds) and tracked motion controllers.
Oculus recently announced a new software feature that lowers the price of admission by letting you use a lower-specced gaming PC for VR. But that $500 Rift-ready machine isn't yet available, leaving you to (temporarily) spend the same as you would on a Vive-ready machine – which usually means $700 and up.
For the simplest diving-in points, you can order this Rift + PC bundle for $1,319 (just remember this doesn't include Oculus Touch, so you'll want to order that separately) or this Vive + PC bundle for $1,520 (more expensive because it already includes motion controls).
If you or someone you know is handy enough to build a PC from scratch – and are willing to throw simplicity out the window – you might be able to get the PC cost down a bit with a custom-made gaming rig. Unless you already have experience tinkering with the insides of PCs, you'll probably want to avoid this option, but the internet is full of build-your-own-PC tutorials for the brave and uninitiated.
As for which of the two high-end headsets to buy, that's a tough call. Earlier this year we found the Vive to be the clear winner, with its precise 360-degree tracking and bundled motion controls. But with the imminent launch of Oculus Touch along with recent catch-up updates like a boundary system (so you don't bump into walls) and 360-degree tracking of its own, the Rift's superior ergonomics and more aggressive content lineup could very well tilt that balance back in its favor. Stay tuned; more to come on this.