Educate Me On Virtual Reality Headsets

The future of gaming? Or a nice gimmick whose time came and went?

I’ve got one of these on my Christmas list. It uses your smart phone as a VR gaming system, which I assume will allow me to play the five or six free VR games available via the Google VR app. Is there a fix or a mod where I can enable my phone to watch videos (YouTube, Netflix) in “3D” with that device?

Looking toward the more expensive, all-in-one models (like PlayStation VR): can those devices be used for videos (Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, my own movie collection on iTunes, etc.)? What about TV (my favorite shows, live sports)?

Finally, is now a good time to spend money on a VR system (and if so, which one?)? Or are new-generation models coming out that will be a better value for my gaming dollar?

First, the 3D that the VR headsets are claiming for video playback is actually just to place you inside a 3D environment and the video is played on a flat screen like normal real life. The benefit now being that you can make it visually the size of a movie theater and get a movie theater experience in your own home. The downside being low quality playback on low quality devices (for example, the GearVR has a “screen door” effect where you can see the individual pixels in the video). You can play local videos and videos through apps that the device you’re using has access to (so likely netflix, prime, hulu, etc, but not local TV).

Anything less than a Vive or a Rift (of the ones currently released) is a “low quality” VR device. The difference between the low end and the high end in terms of capability is somewhat large. You will not get a very representative or whole VR experience using the GearVR or the Playstation VR.

Beware of Playstation VR. I haven’t paid attention to it since it’s on a lower tier than I have (I own an Oculus Rift) but something pings in my mind that they’ve been advertising many more games for VR than are ACTUALLY VR. What they mean is, again, you can play a normal 2D game on a big screen like a movie theater. So read the fine print on whatever games you think are going to be VR experiences. And there’s something else pinging to me that the Playstation VR headset doesn’t even come with a tracking camera by default, a required element for VR. So check what you get in the package if you do go that route.

Anyway, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are really where it’s at. And even so, I wouldn’t recommend them yet. I’d wait until at least next year, or even all the way to their next iteration. The Rift has only finally gotten touch, the controllers that are really kind of required to have fun in all sorts of games, and everything as a whole is still very expensive as it’s first generation. It looks to be a great new direction for gaming, but still too fresh for mass consumption.

Right, as mentioned, watching 2D content like movies, is done in VR by dumping you into a virtual space and rendering the video on a large screen in front of you.

With today’s devices, this is no match to watching your movie, even on a 1080p TV, much less a high quality 4K screen.

The current resolution on these devices can produce convincing 3D renders that immerse you in a virtual wold, but their image quality is very poor. If you’ve ever owned or tried one of those tiny portable projectors, you’ll pretty much know what the experience is like. Cool for about 1 minute as you see the picture take up your entire wall… and then you realize how horrendous, and low res it looks, and you turn it off to go watch it on your TV.

Mind you those little projectors are really about the portability, not about the image quality. And VR is about the immersion into a virtual place and not about great IQ and detail. At least, not yet.

Is it a fad? I think it’s way too early to say, and the way people who have tried it talk about it, I doubt it. It’s just early days.

In terms of investing in one, unless you’re ok throwing at least around grand at VR right now, I would say no. Wait a little longer. Some new tech is coming out that might bring prices down, and might make the experience a bit less cumbersome too (like Valve’s Wireless adapter for their headset, and their improved light houses which might make the headset lighter and cheaper).

In terms of what to get, well good VR is a mix of the following:

  1. Headset IQ - This comes down to resolution, the quality of the panel and FOV, at least right now. None are great, but it goes Vive > Oculus > PSVR.

  2. Tracking. This is crucial. Not only does the quality and extent of tracking provide new ways of interacting with games, but it’s important for the quality fo the experience. Bad or inconsistent tracking can be jarring, take you out of the experience, feel clunky, or downright make you feel sick. Vive currently has the complete package. A headset that does inside out tracking (light houses create a pattern on walls that the headset uses to track) and great, very accurate motion controls. This enables the possibility of full 360 motion tracking ie “room scale”. Oculus is next with outside in tracking via two cameras, and motion controls that are coming soon, I think. Then there’s PSVR, with a single camera for outside in tracking, making it the most finicky and inaccurate at tracking with lots of occlusion issues. So Vive >> Oculus (to improve with the upcoming controls) >>> PSVR.

  3. Performance - You need high end tech and top notch performance to make worlds that don’t look like shit and can run at high refresh rates needed for VR to properly create a sense of “presence” (feeling like you are actually there and not just looking at a 3D screen), and not to make you feel sick. This is currently a function apart from the actual VR headsets and gear and handled by dedicated graphics hardware. A PC for oculus and Vive and a Playstation for PSVR. The advantages ona PC are obvious here, but they also cost more $$$. PC >>>>>>PS4 Pro >>> PS4.

  4. Games and experiences. Most right now are essentially demos. People are still experimenting with this new way of playing games, and some experiments are turning out amazingly, while others are falling flat. These are early days still so we don’t know what the landscape will look like for these platforms in the future. I’ll say this much though: I’d trust an open platform to deliver a lot more content than a closed one. But it’s possible that a closed one will produce at least some, very polished experiences that can only bep played there. Right now I’d say the PC has a larger variety of things to try while the PSVR has a couple of exclusive, and pretty awesome looking things that you can’t play anywhere else.