State of the Game: Virtual Reality

24 pictures

Gizmag looks at this modern wave of virtual reality, which was spearheaded by Oculus founder Palmer Luckey(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

View gallery - 24 images

You've probably heard by now that virtual reality is supposed to be a thing this year. But if you have some catching up to do on the innovations, upcoming headsets and what to look for when making a decision, let Gizmag lend a hand with the latest installment of our State of the Game series: Virtual Reality.

For a while there, VR looked like it would forever be one of those technologies that sounds great in sci-fi and broader pop culture, but never comes close to living up to our fantasies. For every MTV-fueled, teenage dream of hanging out with a virtual Alicia Silverstone in Aerosmith's "Amazing" video, there was the laughable disappointment of Nintendo's Virtual Boy. For every The Matrix, where a cyberpunk Keanu Reeves could be "The One" inside the metaverse, you had products like the Forte VFX1, with its extremely narrow (45-degree) field of view and comically low-resolution (230p) display.

But a seismic shift occurred in late 2012, when a young head-mounted display enthusiast/inventor named Palmer Luckey, after eyeing the future of VR through a vast study of its past of incremental improvements and colossal failures, took his own creation to Kickstarter to crowdfund a monumental breakthrough in VR.

"Is VR gaming finally coming of age?" we wondered after the Oculus Rift Kickstarter went live. It only took a few months to answer our own question: after trying the Rift at CES 2013, our jaws literally dropped.

Those early prototypes now seem primitive compared to the first consumer Rift, but even those early demos were good enough to crack the shell of impossibility that had always surrounded the dream of quality VR. The pre-consumer Rift, though, wasn't just a breakthrough in itself. It also got people – developers, tech enthusiasts, other consumer electronics companies – dreaming about the possibilities that stood before them. That was arguably just as important as the technological advances Oculus VR made.

The consumer Oculus Rift took longer than originally expected, but the first shipments are finally set to go out to early adopters in a couple of months. The dawn of full-consumer VR is upon us.

Along the way, the Rift picked up a formidable rival in the impressive HTC Vive (above) with its room-scale focus, along with a console-laden competitor in Sony's PS4-based PlayStation VR (formerly known by its development code name, "Project Morpheus"). Both will be launching soon after the Rift, in the first half of 2016.

We also can't forget mobile VR, with the much cheaper (but surprisingly capable) Samsung Gear VR serving as Oculus' mobile flagship. It's a bit like the Game Boy to the Oculus Rift's NES.

With all of this consumer VR about to descend upon us, let's look at today's big factions of VR, and what to expect from each in terms of quality and cost.

PC-based VR: Expensive, but easily the best

If you want the very best VR in 2016, you're going to need a powerful gaming PC that, if you're starting from scratch, will cost a US$900 minimum. Both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, easily our two favorite VR platforms so far, are wired headsets that connect to an expensive gaming PC.

Here's the cost breakdown of an Oculus Ready PC with the recommended specs, if you were to build your own (referencing the cheapest prices at the time of publication, from either Amazon or Newegg):

  • Nvidia GTX 970 graphics card ($300) or AMD Radeon R9 290 graphics card ($330)
  • Intel i5-4590 processor ($199)
  • 8 GB RAM (~$40)
  • Windows 7 SP1 or newer version of Windows ($100)

... and if you're truly starting from scratch, don't forget about the PC case (~$50 and up), motherboard (~$50+), hard drive (~$50+), heatsink (~$35+) and, optionally, extra cooling options. That's already an $824 minimum, even when supplying your own labor.

Considering the markup PC vendors typically add onto the sum of parts, that makes the bundles Oculus' partners are offering look quite generous. Buy a ready-made PC with these specs at someplace like Amazon or Best Buy, and you're probably throwing down $1,400 at the very least. When bundled with the Rift, the PC comes out to essentially $900-1,000, just a little more than the minimum bill of materials for building your own.

There's also the headset itself, with the Rift ringing up for $599. Though that does also include a wireless Xbox One gamepad, two AAA-quality games and the necessary sensors, a cheap setup this is not, by any stretch.

... and if you want the Oculus Touch controllers that launch later this year (trust us, you will), that will add another unknown sum onto your investment. Chances are, it won't be peanuts.

HTC hasn't yet announced pricing or minimum specs for the Vive, but we'd be shocked if it were any cheaper than the Rift or required any less powerful a PC. Considering it will include HTC's equivalent to the Touch controllers in the box with the headset, it could end up costing several hundred dollars more than the Rift.

As is often the case with high-end tech, at the very beginning the highest-quality virtual reality is going to be limited to folks who have nearly $2,000 to invest in living on the bleeding edge. Much like the original Macintosh ($2,495 in 1984, though it would be much more today after inflation adjustments), the first MacBook Air ($1,800 in 2008) or the original iPhone ($499 with a two-year contract in 2007).

As Oculus founder Palmer Luckey tweeted in December, "VR will become something everyone wants before it becomes something everyone can afford." That's a big change from the message of the Rift's Kickstarter campaign, which promised the exact opposite: "a price everyone can afford." The shift in mindset comes after more than three years of innovation, a new deep-pocketed parent company (Facebook) opening doors that had previously been closed to a young startup, and a world anxiously waiting to see if VR is the next big thing.

Oculus is now focused on making the Rift as good as today's technology allows VR to be, and that's never a cheap endeavor.

Console-based VR: Accessible, with compromises

In addition to PCs, Oculus says the Rift will eventually support wireless streaming from an Xbox One to a PC-tethered Rift. And when asked about the possibility of a direct (physical) connection to the Xbox, Oculus hasn't ruled anything out.

Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, when asked about the prospect of a direct physical connection between Rift and Xbox One at the Rift's June 2015 launch event, had this to say:

We're, as a young company, trying to launch two consumer products at the same time. So adding a third or fourth one would be really challenging. So just from a resource constraint, we want to keep laser-focused right now on the Rift on the PC and Gear VR on Android.

It sounds like a direct Xbox-to-Rift connection is on the radar, and the only reason it isn't yet in active development (or at least wasn't last June) is because the company doesn't want to spread itself too thin. One or two things at a time.

There are also rumors that Nintendo's next console (allegedly codenamed NX), which we could hear about as early as this year, could have either an AR (augmented reality) or VR element built into it. There's no official word on this, but if Nintendo wants to make up some of the ground it lost to Sony and Microsoft in the last few years, it needs to stay ahead of the game – and that means jumping onto the VR train very soon. And hey, it's also a chance to erase memories of the glorious train-wreck that was the Virtual Boy.

For now that leaves the only console-based VR that we know for certain will launch in 2016 as Sony's PlayStation VR. We've tried PS VR, and it too is very good.

With that said, it also isn't quite fighting in the same weight class as the Rift and Vive. As you'd expect, there's an extra graphical pop (or seven) on the PC-based headsets that you can't get from a 2013-era console. And we think that's a bigger deal in VR than it is in a traditional game. In non-VR gaming, PC vs. console means stuff on the PC looks cooler on a 2D screen. But in VR, PC vs. console means the PC makes the world you're inside feel more lush, detailed and alive. Big difference.

Time will tell if consumers as a whole want to be that discerning, but right now we think VR gaming needs that extra punch that only a PC can provide. At least in this first generation of consumer VR gear.

An even bigger problem with PS VR is the platform's dated PlayStation Move controllers. They're meant to fill a similar role as Oculus Touch and the Vive's controllers (which use combinations of grip-triggers, motion sensing and haptics to "give you hands" inside first-person VR experiences). But the Move remotes are way too big and remote-like to feel like hands. Expect lots of PS VR games to focus on swords, guns, large sticks and other phallic objects; anything subtler than that won't feel remotely lifelike when using the long and thick PS Move remotes.

We don't yet know how much PlayStation VR will cost, but the total price (console + headset) should come out to be much cheaper than either the Rift or Vive (PC + headset). For starters, you're comparing a $900+ PC to a $350 console – and that doesn't take into account the millions of gamers who already own the requisite PS4. Even if Sony's headset cost a couple hundred more than the Rift (which is possible, but we'd bet on something around the Rift's price if not cheaper) the total package would still come out to significantly less.

This could potentially give Sony a big head-start with adoption. That could be good for the accessibility of first-gen VR, but not quite as good for widespread perceived quality.

Mobile VR: The gateway drug

Mobile virtual reality sounds like it would be nothing more than a watered-down approximation of the high-end PC platforms ... and in many cases, it is. But the Samsung Gear VR (which is also an Oculus product, as the two companies collaborate on the accessory) comes surprisingly close. Or, at least as close as you could expect for VR that's powered by a smartphone.

Oculus execs forecast that the Gear VR could only take two or three years to catch up with today's Rift. That's a bold prediction, and one that can get you thinking about VR consumer adoption. If 2018 or 2019 consumers can get the experience of using today's $1,500 Oculus Rift just by sliding a Galaxy S9 or Galaxy Note 7 into a $99 headset, suddenly it's easy to see a world where this stuff moves far beyond the realm of early adopters.

You also can't count out Google. The company's Cardboard developer kits (above) make for a comically low-end introduction to VR today, but it's also something of a Trojan Horse: it gets VR developers making content for the Google Play Store, while Mountain View privately draws up plans for a higher-end consumer experience. Expect to hear about big things in VR at Google's annual developer conference this May.

Then there's a little company called Apple. Multiple patents, acquisitions and job listings reveal that VR and AR are somewhere on Apple's radar. We wouldn't be surprised if recent rumors saying that future iPhones will shift to OLED displays were a) spot-on and b) part of those plans, as lower persistence makes OLED panels the current standard for virtual reality. Today's Apple plays the role of follower more often than it used to, but it still has more brand clout than any tech company (probably any company, period) in the world. If Apple releases a VR headset, there's a good chance even your grandmother is going to hear about it and pay attention.

While mobile VR could be the key to adoption several years from now, today it serves as a gateway drug. The current standard, the Gear VR, is fun by itself, but good luck using one for more than a week or two without finding yourself thinking about taking the next step into full-blown VR. Every $99 Gear VR sale has the potential to spawn dreams about the $599 Oculus Rift.

Unlike PC- and console-based VR, mobile VR has the advantage of being wireless, but it also lacks body tracking, wireless "hands" controllers or the degree of raw horsepower that drives the more advanced platforms. It will get there eventually, but right now mobile VR is more of an introduction than the final destination.

Sitting, leaning, standing and moving

Apart from PC, console and mobile, there's another divide in today's VR, and it's based on how you interact with virtual worlds.

On one extreme, you have the Gear VR and other smartphone-based headsets. As we mentioned, they don't have any external sensors, so they only track your head movement. From the neck down, your only interaction with virtual worlds comes from pressing buttons and sticks on the gamepad that's in your hands.

One step forward from that is seated/leaning VR, like the Oculus Rift at launch or PlayStation VR. Since the Oculus Touch controllers don't ship until later this year, the first few months of the Rift's life will be centered around seated experiences, where you use a gamepad but also have all-important positional tracking.

For positional tracking, the Rift uses at least one external optical sensor (connected to a USB port in your PC) that tracks hidden infrared LED emitters on the headset to pinpoint your exact point in space. The result is that, even in seated experiences, the Rift will track your upper body movement and adjust your view of the virtual world accordingly.

... or, put another way: without positional tracking (like on the Gear VR), when you lean your head forward, the world moves forward with you. This feels fake, because that isn't what happens in the real world. But with positional tracking, when you lean your head forward, you get a closer view of what you're looking at in the virtual world. Just like in real life.

Our mockup of what it feels like playing third-person Rift title Lucky's Tale

In Rift launch games like Eve: Valkyrie or Lucky's Tale, despite the fact that you're sitting down with an Xbox controller in your hands, you can still tilt your head, lean forwards or stretch your neck to get a different perspective on things. This adds to the sense of what Oculus calls "presence" – the feeling of being somewhere else. Presence is the foundation of great VR.

Many seated/leaning experiences are third-person games. This sounds like an unusual fit for VR – after all, our childhood sci-fantasies all centered around first-person experiences – but Oculus' developer partners have cooked up some impressive third-person games. Early highlights include the aforementioned platformer Lucky's Tale, along with action/adventure games like Chronos and Edge of Nowhere.

The next level after seated/leaning VR experiences is standing VR. This is where you get your butt out of the chair and take a few steps in any direction, within a confined space. The first Oculus Touch experiences will fall into this category, as well as some PlayStation VR games with its Move controllers.

Standing VR uses the same positional sensor as seated/leaning VR. The big differences are a) these are more likely to be first-person experiences and b) you're likely to be using motion controllers.

These are the experiences where you can start doing things like picking up and firing guns, chucking coffee mugs into opposing cubicles or removing an alien's appendix (we've done all of those things in Oculus Touch demos, and they're all great fun). Though you aren't yet walking around an entire room, taking just a few steps can heighten your sense of presence dramatically compared to seated/leaning experiences. That same sensation is impossible in Gear VR experiences with their head-rotation-only tracking.

The last faction is room-scale VR. This is the bag HTC and Valve are putting all their marbles into from Day One, with the Vive.

Room-scale VR is like standing VR, only it uses more than one external sensor to let you roam around a large space. This mode of VR has the potential for the greatest sense of presence, as your entire body is immersed in the virtual world (just like in standing VR) only with the added freedom of moving all around your room.

Like most things taken to their extreme, room-scale VR creates its own drawbacks and challenges. First, since PC- and console-based VR is going to be wired for quite some time, you still have to drag a long cord behind you everywhere you go. Second, and probably more importantly, not many people in 2016 can (or want to) devote an entire room in their home to virtual reality. Third, there's the potential of bumping into walls or tripping over furniture, pets or children.

HTC has cleverly dealt with the third challenge, by putting a forward-facing camera on the latest Vive Pre developer kit. Combined with the software-based Chaperone system, it can help you avoid obstacles by popping up either a grid on your display (which represents the edge of your playing space) or faux-infrared projections of obstacles like furniture or dogs. We've only spent a short time with the Vive Pre, but so far it looks like it handles these room-scale obstacles brilliantly.

The Vive also uses a different approach to sensing movement, one which makes room-scale VR a bit more practical. The company's "Lighthouse" sensors work almost exactly in reverse of Oculus' constellation tracking. Instead of emitting invisible light from the headset and tracking it with external sensors, the Lighthouse stations emit invisible lasers that photosensors on the headset and controllers use to track their own position in space. The big advantage to this is that the Lighthouse stations don't need to be connected to your PC; you can just plug them into regular wall outlets.

An Oculus Rift positional sensor (left), and two HTC Vive Lighthouse stations

The Oculus Rift will also support room-scale VR, using the same constellation tracking you get from the standing Oculus Touch experiences. A room-scale Rift experience will require a second (and, perhaps in the largest rooms, third) optical sensor, which will apparently be bundled with the Oculus Touch controllers. That may also mean using a USB extender, as the second sensor will likely be sitting in an opposite corner of the room, yet still connected to the PC.

Quality room-scale VR is a juicy longer-term destination, so it's a smart marketing move for HTC and Valve to differentiate their product by making this its main focus from Day One. On the other hand, though, we think Oculus is wise to keep the regular consumer at the forefront of its strategy: jumping straight into room-scale VR and expecting many customers to commit to that, before most people have even tried seated/leaning VR, strikes us as putting the cart before the horse.

The Vive strategy only works from a follower position: for room-scale VR to have any mass market appeal, for it to be worth the piles of money HTC and Valve are throwing into it, somebody first needs to make sure VR catches on, period. Without Oculus (along with Sony, Samsung and anyone else who jumps into the game) taking consumers through that gentler learning process, it's unlikely anyone but the most eager VR geeks will ever dream of investing in a room-sized VR setup.

... and when consumers are ready for room-scale VR, the Rift will be ready too – just in a slightly different way.

To recap each headset's approach to the four modes of VR:

  • The current Samsung Gear VR (and other smartphone-based headsets) only tracks head rotation, and uses either a gamepad or the headset's touchpad to control movement. Without any external sensors, there's no leaning or body tracking of any kind (lean your head and the world leans with you). It is possible, though, that external sensors will show up in future versions of the Gear VR.
  • The PC-based HTC Vive will emphasize room-scale VR from the start. It will also be capable of seated/leaning and standing experiences from the beginning.
  • The PC-based Oculus Rift will emphasize seated/leaning from the start, with standing experiences coming when Oculus Touch launches in the second half of 2016. At that point the Rift will also be capable of room-scale VR by adding a second positional sensor, but it isn't yet clear how much early Oculus content will be tailored towards room-scale.
  • The PS4-based PlayStation VR will emphasize seated/leaning experiences at launch, but standing is also possible with its PlayStation Eye camera and (somewhat clunky) PS Move controllers. It isn't yet known if first-generation PS VR will ever support room-scale VR.

Audio presence

An underestimated part of the whole feeling like you're somewhere else thing is audio. Spatial audio (also known as 3D audio, positional audio or binaural audio) is when individual effects sound like they're coming from the proper directions. It isn't likely the first thing you'll notice (human brains tend to emphasize sight over sound), but great audio can contribute noticeably to VR's sense of immersion.

Sony was the first to raise this point, when it started demoing 3D audio solutions on PlayStation VR in mid-2014. Oculus showed us the Rift's spatial audio in early 2015, and we've seen forms of positional audio built into Vive demos as well. Even headphone maker Sennheiser got in on the fun, demoing its impressive software-based 3D audio standard for VR at CES 2016:

The Oculus Rift is the only headset that we know for certain will have built-in headphones. We'd be surprised if the Vive didn't, but HTC has yet to confirm this or show off its final consumer product. PlayStation VR doesn't yet have built-in headphones either, and there haven't been any strong indications that it will. The $99 Gear VR requires you to plug your own headphones or earbuds into the Samsung phone that lives inside the headset.

There are both pros and cons of using built-in headphones. If you already own a high-end pair of cans, it's quite possible you'll get much better audio (or bonuses like active noise cancellation) from your own pair. Built-in audio also likely adds to the cost of the headset; if you're using your own headphones, that's wasted money.

On the other hand, integrated audio gives developers a universal standard to create audio experiences for, and it also gives users one less cable to worry about – simplifying the process of putting on and taking off the headset. Plus the Rift's built-in headphones happen to sound pretty damn good (and you still have the option of removing those and using your own if you prefer).

You won't always hear much about audio in media impressions of the big VR headsets, but it's a point you'll want to keep a close eye on (or ear to) as the rest of the final consumer VR headsets are revealed and you decide which one to buy.

Beyond gaming ... and the road to "magic glasses"

VR is going to start with gaming. Gamers are the demographic that's going to support it from the beginning, and it's the most fun and logical way to use a VR headset today.

Down the road, though, that will change. You can bet Oculus' parent company Facebook is eyeing social VR (which, even when using rudimentary animations, feels almost like being in the same room with somebody). The Facebook of the future could look more like the metaverse than the collection of homepages it is today.

Oculus and Google already have separate pre-release sculpting or drawing tools for VR, where you create 3D models or works of art inside a virtual space. And people in small apartments may be drawn to using VR headsets to watch a movie in what looks like a posh penthouse or private movie theater.

It didn't take Hollywood long to show an interest in VR (and Oculus has a movie division of its own); there are going to be feature-length movies made for virtual reality, where you're in the film with the actors. Once content providers (and, more so, Internet providers) solve live-streaming bandwidth issues, VR will let you have a courtside seat at a live sporting event.

We've already seen some exercise equipment that uses VR, like the VirZoom bike (above). Even the most basic VR games can gamify your workout and distract you from your rapid breathing, increased heart rate and muscle fatigue.

VR will find its niches with enterprise and government agencies as well, letting employees or enlistees simulate the feeling of doing the job in the field. And eventually VR and telepresence robots may work together, giving us real-life Avatar experiences where you meet with people on the other side of the world by controlling a humanoid drone through your VR headset.

If you want to really get your imagination firing on where VR could go years or decades from now, we recommend listening to someone who can articulate that much better than we can: Oculus Research head Michael Abrash, in his talk (embedded below) from the company's 2015 developer's conference.

He details the long-term goals of being able to put on "magic glasses" that not only seem to realistically teleport you anywhere (in resolutions and fields of view that are indistinguishable from the real world), but that also look discreet while doing so. His talk highlights the contrast between that ultimate vision and today's severely limiting technology; it's an insightful perspective on the numerous advances that will need to take place before VR is 100 percent teleportive and 100 percent consumer-friendly.

For more in Gizmag's State of the Game series, you can check out our features on Supercars, Deep Space Exploration and the World's Tallest Buildings.

View gallery - 24 images

Top stories

Recommended for you

Latest in VR

Editors Choice