After years of waiting, you can now choose from among three competent VR systems for turning your TV room into a one-person holodeck. VR is still a new technology with a lot of kinks to be ironed out (far from a “most people” purchase), but after spending hours using each first-gen system with a five-person panel of VR experts and beginners, we’ve chosen the Oculus Rift with Touch controllers ($200 extra) as our pick because it combines a comfortable, approachable design with top-notch image and audio quality, plus it offers the largest currently available VR content catalog.
Early in our testing and research, we came to a surprising conclusion: Specs are actually the least important consideration when it comes to evaluating VR setups. All of them are capable of producing immersive image and sound. So what really matters is comfort and ease of use. With that in mind, we chose the Oculus Rift as the clear winner: It was the lightest and most comfortable of the bunch (so you can wear it for longer), had the most well-balanced and capable controllers, and was the easiest to set up. The Rift has only three cords, and its on-ear headphones require zero thought compared with the earbuds bundled with other kits. Additionally, Oculus currently has the widest selection of SteamVR compatible content. In short, it’s the most complete package you can get right now.
If you want the ability to walk around an entire room and have that motion replicated in VR, the HTC Vive is your best option. Its “room scale VR” compatibility allows the Vive to support more-immersive games that encourage players to incorporate their physical surroundings into their virtual experiences. You’ll soon find yourself crouching under laser traps and prowling around your living room after you convert it into a virtual play space. It’s not as comfortable as the Rift, and the controllers aren’t as compact, but it’s the one to get if you have the room for it. (Oculus is working on this feature, and some room-scale stuff functions well already, but to get the Rift on a par with the Vive right now requires three external sensors and long, long USB cables.)
Sony’s PlayStation VR headset can’t track you quite as well as the competition can, but it’s good enough to provide a fun, solid virtual reality gaming experience. If you own a PlayStation 4 or 4 Pro (or would rather buy one than an expensive gaming PC), the PSVR’s $500 price tag makes it an easy pick. There are plenty of games to choose from—including PSVR exclusives like Rez Infinite as well as games like EVE: Valkyrie that are available on Vive and Rift—its camera and controllers are PlayStation accessories you may already own, and it’s easy to get into if you’re already familiar with the PlayStation’s user interface. Two of my testers also chose it as the most comfortable headset (the other two picked the Rift).
I’ve spent the three years since Oculus released its first dev kit writing about and testing VR for tech publications like TechCrunch, MIT Technology Review, and Gigaom. I know how to watch for the annoyances that come with new technologies like VR, and I’ve tested every major VR system, from Google’s Cardboard to HTC’s Vive.
The first time you try a good virtual reality system, you’ll be blown away. The technology is so solid now that it really does feel like you’ve been transported to another world. But while there are a fair amount of short films, puzzles, social networks, and other types of VR entertainment available, games are the only medium that can offer hours of immersive entertainment1 so if you’re not into video games, you’re going to grow bored fairly quickly. With that in mind, it’s important to understand that only gamers or technophiles with fairly deep pockets should seriously consider a dedicated VR setup at this time.
That said, virtual reality games are a different experience from games on traditional consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation. The hand-tracking controllers, which bring your hands “into” the virtual world, are more intuitive for beginners: Swinging a sword feels like swinging a sword, throwing a mug at a robot feels (kind of) like throwing a mug, ducking for cover requires real ducking. This makes play more about your choices than your ability to press the right combinations of buttons on a controller, which can totally change how you perceive the games you play. For example, I’ve never been a fan of Halo or Gears of War, but I immediately had fun playing shooter games in VR. On the other hand, an experienced gamer (but beginning VR user) told me during testing that he was annoyed that there was still a learning curve at all.
If you decide to try VR, go in with an open mind and a sense of adventure, and remember that it’s still a budding technology—none of these systems have even been out for a full year. While there are already some great VR experiences, like the action-packed Superhot VR or more artistic Tilt Brush, you’re still basically a guinea pig helping developers figure out how the headsets should be used. It’s fun, but expect glitches and weird control schemes at first.
It’s a good idea to go to a store like Best Buy or Microsoft and test a few VR systems for yourself. If you have trouble enjoying the experience at the store or aren’t completely excited at the idea of exploring at home, a VR headset is probably not for you. You should also take cost into account. The PSVR—including hand-tracking controllers and a camera—costs $500, plus a PlayStation 4 or 4 Pro. The Oculus Rift + Touch and the HTC Vive each cost $800, and a new VR-capable PC costs at least $800.
If you want a cheaper, but more limited taste of virtual reality, check out our phone VR headset guide. Mobile VR doesn’t come close to matching the abilities of the desktop systems, but it’s an easy way to experience the basics for less than $100.
The Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR are the only full-featured VR systems available right now. Everything else is vastly more limited in ability or still in the prototype or dev kit stage. I set up and tested all three in my living room, then had four VR beginners (with gaming experience levels ranging from zero to expert) use each system, too. For expert opinions, I consulted Road to VR cofounder Ben Lang, AltspaceVR head of experience Bruce Wooden, Visionary VR CEO Gil Baron, and SVRF CEO and cofounder Sophia Dominguez.
I asked each of my experts and beginners to rank each system’s content, immersion, headset comfort, and hand controllers. I also asked who they thought should get each system.
I looked for these same criteria while spending at least three hours in each VR system myself. Comfort is important, especially for first-timers. The goal of VR is to maximize immersion—the sense that you’re actually there in a virtual world. Discomfort is one of the quickest ways to break it. I noted where each headset concentrated weight on my head, and how my level of comfort changed over the course of a long VR session. Testers with smaller faces tended to have more trouble with the Vive, while the PlayStation VR’s headset, which rests on the forehead rather than in the eye zone, made it friendly to almost every head shape.
I evaluated each system’s hand controllers carefully, because those make a huge difference in immersion. Their designs vary slightly, with different buttons and feeling in your hand.
The technical specs of the headsets turned out to be the least important criteria. Neither the VR experts nor beginners reported major differences in technical experiences among any of the three headsets. They all have nice screens and meet the basic criteria for body and hand tracking: They are fast enough and have high enough resolution that the sense of immersion doesn’t break, most of the time. This held up during my testing, so I won’t dwell on comparing screen quality or other basic specs. IGN does have a nice chart, if you’re curious.
I ran the PSVR by hooking it up to a PlayStation 4, while the Vive and Rift were both plugged into my home computer: a CyberPowerPC that meets the minimum requirements for both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
The Oculus Rift + Touch strikes a compromise between the PSVR and the Vive with a high-end VR experience that doesn’t require much fuss. It’s clear Oculus put a lot of thought into building a headset that will appeal to gaming veterans and newcomers alike with a comfy fit, quick startup process, and wide range of content. If you get the Rift, you should also spend the extra $100 for the Touch controllers, which greatly increase your immersion and completely change the way you can use the Rift. We tested the Rift with the Touch controllers and don’t recommend it without them.
Rift has the easiest physical setup of the three with just three cords. One long cord connects the headset to the computer, while the other two are attached to sensors that can be placed directly on your desktop or media center2. The sensors track infrared LEDs embedded in the Rift headset and the Touch controllers so your movement is accurately replicated in virtual reality. Oculus’s software walks you through the rest of the setup process, including ensuring correct sensor placement and tracing a play region in your designated VR room.
Many older Oculus games are designed to be played while seated, where turning your head is the only required movement and most interaction happens via an included Xbox One controller, or a small handheld remote. But content optimized for the Touch controllers can involve more turning and stepping, and movement of your hands in realistic ways.
The more space you can set aside for VR play the better: Many games require only a step or two in any direction, but others ask you to walk around a small space. I used a rug in my living room to mark the edges of my play area. I rarely found myself pining to walk outside the Rift’s minimum recommended 5-by-5-foot box, though I could have pushed it to 5 by 11 feet or even beyond. Developers have done an okay job designing experiences around the space constraint, though it can get awkward standing in an apparently vast space but being able to move freely in only a tiny part of it.
Two of my beginner VR testers and I found the Rift’s headset the most comfortable of the three we tested. The side and top straps are adjustable via strips of Velcro, but they have enough give that none of my testers needed to adjust them. It is the lightest headset of the three at 1.04 pounds, versus the PSVR’s 1.34 pounds and the Vive’s 1.22 pounds. The difference is immediately noticeable and becomes increasingly important the longer you spend in VR. Only the Rift headset is light enough that you can forget it’s there at all.
Price (with controllers)*
|Oculus Rift||1.04 pounds||$600|
|HTC Vive||1.22 pounds||$800|
|PlayStation VR||1.34 pounds||$500|
While the Vive and the PSVR both include earbuds that plug into standard headphone jacks on their respective headsets, the Rift has on-ear headphones attached to its straps. They provide convincing 3-D sound and never fall out of your ears like the earbuds can, and since they’re attached to the headset, they’re easier to deal with. On the other hand, the Rift doesn’t have a 3.5-millimeter jack, so you can’t easily use your own headphones, but the included headphones are good enough that you probably won’t need to. If anything goes wrong (or if you prefer earbuds), you can buy replacements through Oculus.
The Oculus Touch controllers are also top-notch—all but one tester chose them as their favorite. They’re the most intimidating out of the three to pick up because they require you to specifically place your middle and pointer fingers on trigger buttons, while your thumbs rest next to three buttons and a thumbpad. But the controllers are well-balanced and intuitive once you get the hang of it: Squeeze your middle finger to pick up something, or squeeze your pointer finger to shoot. The Verge’s Adi Robertson points out another cool feature: “a set of capacitive sensors that detect how you’re holding them. If your forefinger isn’t on the trigger, for example, Touch intuits that you’re pointing it outward. It can tell precisely where on the top panel you’ve rested your thumb, and if it’s raised, put your virtual hand in a thumbs-up position. The options vary a little by experience, but they create a totally new set of very natural gestures.”
Both of the Vive and PlayStation VR controllers look more like sticks with triggers on the back. The PlayStation’s Move controller has a simple big button on the front surrounded by smaller ones, while the Vive emphasizes a trackpad for scrolling and clicking.
Oculus’s ecosystem support is also best-in-class. You can watch movies, play shooter games, and work your way through puzzle scenarios on all three systems, but the Rift has more titles across a greater variety of genres compared with the others. It’s also easy to launch Vive games on the Rift, expanding the library even further (there’s a workaround to play Rift-exclusive games on the Vive, but it’s more complicated and not officially condoned). I won’t say there’s something for everyone, but if there is something for you, you’re more likely to find it on Oculus. I spent the most time playing VR Sports Challenge (an Oculus-exclusive title where you can be a hockey goalie or football player), I Expect You to Die (an escape room-style puzzle series), and Superhot VR (a stylish, Oculus-exclusive action game that boils down to dodging bullets and smashing people). People speak fondly of an Oculus-exclusive modeling app called Medium, but I couldn’t get it to download correctly.
The Rift lets you launch games from your computer screen or from inside the headset on a homescreen, which is designed to look like a modern living room. It’s the most seamless interface of the three and feels like it was developed for VR.
The Oculus Rift’s main drawback is that it can’t match the HTC Vive’s ability to track movement around an entire room. As with the Vive, the Rift’s headset displays a glowing blue fence around you when you get too close to the edges of your designated play area—a nice safety feature that quickly grows annoying when you can’t move more than a foot without the fence appearing. The Rift’s minimum and maximum play area sizes are both smaller than the Vive’s.
The limited tracking also has implications for the Rift’s Touch controllers. The sensors, which are supposed to be placed in front of you, sometimes lost track of my hands when I reached out to pick something up in the fringes of my play area. It got even worse when in the course of regular gameplay I turned my back to the two sensors, causing the Rift to lose sight of my hands. Some people are working around this by placing the sensors higher up or kitty-corner from each other, like the Vive’s Lighthouses. Oculus’s experimental room-scale system (PDF) requires a third sensor behind you in order to avoid this. The base Rift kit comes with one, the Touch controllers come with a second, and you can buy additional ones for $60 each. All of the Oculus’s sensors need to be connected to your PC via USB, unlike with HTC’s Vive, which just need power. The Vive requires only two sensors, both of which ship with the base system.
The Rift has a foam border that sits comfortably against most faces, like a pair of ski goggles. But like ski goggles, they won’t fit perfectly for everyone. One of our testers complained that it was too snug and restricted airflow, causing the setup to feel extremely warm.
Gamers who are serious about VR are likely to gravitate toward the HTC Vive. The Vive has the best room-scale experience so far, and more of its games are designed to take advantage of the entire play area, increasing immersion by making you walk around the virtual environment. It’s more complicated to set up than the Oculus, its headset is less comfortable, and it’s harder to use Rift content on the Vive than vice versa, but since it was designed for room-scale use from the start, the Vive is still the best system for serious gamers—for now.
The Vive’s setup has a couple of extra steps compared with the Rift’s (Gizmodo’s Michael Nunez found it to be a downright pain), beginning with two boxes that must be mounted to a wall or placed on tall tripods. Known as Lighthouses, each uses flashing LEDs and fast-moving lasers to send signals to sensors in the headset and controllers, allowing them to figure out their positions in space3. As recommended, I placed them in opposite corners of my living room about 7 feet in the air. They paired almost immediately after turning on. The headset itself plugs into a small breakout box, which plugs into several ports on your computer and to an AC outlet.
The Vive’s software walks you through setting up a play area and pushes you to set aside a much larger space than the Rift’s does. I struggled to fit the recommended 6.5-by-5-foot play area into my living room. Eventually, I started removing my coffee table and chairs every time I wanted to play.
Inside the games that really take advantage of the Vive’s room-scale abilities, I found myself wishing for a much larger area. The Lighthouse sensors can be a maximum of 15 feet apart—farther than my living room could fit. I was constantly peeking out of the tiny gap between the headset and my nose to make sure I wasn’t running into the remaining furniture in the room—an annoying break in immersion. (There’s a front-facing camera on the Vive that lets you do this without removing the headset, but it’s off by default and turning it on is not intuitive.) If you’re really serious about VR, consider setting aside an entire room clear of obstacles for worry-free play.
Despite the Vive’s impressive tracking abilities, the headset’s bulky fit dampened my enthusiasm. “There’s a wonderfully geeky quality about it—wearing the Vive makes you look like some sort of H.R. Giger monstrosity—but that may also work directly against its appeal to normal users,” Devindra Hardawar wrote on Engadget. The headset feels front heavy, as if it’s pulling forward on your face. It’s an uncomfortable sensation that fades away during the first 20 minutes or so of gameplay, but then returns as the headset starts to feel heavier and heavier.
For the amount of movement involved in the Vive, I also found the cord on the included earbuds—which connect to a headphone jack in the back of the headset—to be too short. They often pulled out of my ears. You can use your own headphones, though, if you prefer. (At CES 2017, HTC announced a Deluxe Audio Strap, which should be more comfortable and has integrated headphones like the Rift’s, but it isn’t available yet.)
Like the headset, the Vive’s controllers feel top heavy. My testers agreed they are the least balanced of the three. However, they’re relatively easy to use. They have a trigger, side grip buttons, and a big, flat clickable trackpad for your thumb. Sliding your thumb across the pad allows you to quickly scroll through menus and perform other functions within games. (As with the Rift, the controllers are always rendered in VR, so you can “see” what buttons you’re pressing and what part of the trackpad you’re touching). And because the Lighthouses can see you anywhere in the room, the controllers are always accurate, and accurately placed, unlike the Rift’s, which can get lost if you turn away from the front sensors.
PC gamers will appreciate that the Vive’s games download and launch in Steam—the ubiquitous game store and library beloved by much of the PC community. The desktop version of Steam is clunky and disorganized compared with the Rift’s crisp, curated user interface, but once you get to the Vive’s VR homescreen, it doesn’t feel much different from the Oculus Store.
Steam’s library is a bit overwhelming to browse, so I recommend looking up lists of games to try on Vive. I trended toward the Vive-exclusive painting app Tilt Brush and hilarious party game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, but gamers and people eager to try room-scale VR will like the Vive exclusive Onward and A Chair in a Room: Greenwater for their maximum use of movement within a room.
While the PlayStation VR isn’t quite as capable as the Rift or the Vive, it comes pretty close. It’s an obvious pick for anyone who already owns a PlayStation 4—or would rather buy a PlayStation than an expensive high-powered PC. A PSVR runs $400 for the headset, or $500 for the complete bundle, which also includes the required PlayStation Camera and PlayStation Move hand controllers (the camera and Move controllers have been available for years, so some PS4 owners might already have them). You can get a PlayStation 4 for less than $250—half the cost of even the most basic VR-compatible PCs.
The PSVR is easy enough for anyone to set up, but it took the longest out of the three systems and involved the most cords. The headset plugs into an included breakout box, which plugs into the PlayStation. It also comes with a camera that attaches to the top of your TV and plugs into the PlayStation. PlayStation’s software walks you through the necessary setup process.
Some documentation recommends a play area as large as 10 feet by 6 feet, but most of its games are designed to be played while sitting down, and even the ones that required movement didn’t use much more space than the Rift’s minimum 5-by-5-foot play area. The reality is that the PSVR’s camera isn’t good enough to perfectly track your hands when they are right in front of it, let alone across an entire room. As with the Rift, turning your back to the PlayStation’s camera leaves your hands obscured, destroying the camera’s ability to track. Since the PSVR has only one camera, there’s not much you can do about that.
Jeff Bakalar at CNET says that while the PSVR can create as immersive experience as the Vive or Rift, it doesn’t quite match their visual fidelity or camera performance. “If the camera isn’t tracking you well, the artificial floor can start to drift while playing,” Bakalar says. “That’s a weird feeling! It feels like you’re drunk and can’t hold yourself up.”
The PSVR is the most elaborate headset to put on, and fits a little bit differently than the Vive and Rift. You press a button on a plastic strap, allowing you to stretch it over your head. It rests on your forehead and the bottom of the back of your head. Adi Robertson thinks it distributes weight much more evenly across your head: “Your average virtual reality headset is strapped on like a ski mask, which ensures a snug fit but can also squeeze your face unpleasantly. PSVR, by contrast, has a padded plastic ring that rests on your head a bit like a hard hat.”
The main part of the headset hovers in front of your eyes until you press a button on its underside, allowing you to slide it until it’s snug against your face. Two of my VR beginners named it the most comfortable headset. One of them, who found the Rift and Vive to be too hot, liked that the hovering headset allows more airflow.
The PlayStation Move controllers are the easiest to hold and use, but they feel the most basic. They’re essentially just sticks with a trigger for your pointer finger and big button for your thumb, and big glowing spheres on the end for tracking. (These controllers first appeared in 2010 as part of Sony’s answer to the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Kinect.) Just as I had issues with the Vive, I had problems with the included earbuds falling out of my ears when I turned my head. You can swap in your own pair of headphones, though, thanks to the standard 3.5 mm jack at the back of the headset.
As you might expect, most PlayStation VR experiences are games, but it doesn’t have as many of those (or other VR experiences) as the Rift or Vive. I liked the puzzle-focused Batman: Arkham VR and Thumper, a music game that feels like Guitar Hero crossed with iTunes’s trippy music visualizer. You can also play fun titles available across all three headsets like the cheeky Job Simulator and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes.
Like the Rift and Vive when they first launched, the PlayStation VR kits can be hard to track down.
If you have a couch, a TV, and a PlayStation 4, you’re pretty much ready for the PSVR. But if you want to use the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, you’ll need a powerful gaming computer and, ideally, a large empty room to put it in. Both Oculus and HTC have pages with discounts on compatible VR-ready PCs and bundles, and both list minimum and recommended PC specs for use with their systems. Oculus’s is here, and HTC’s is here. Both headsets also offer tools you can download to test whether your current PC is VR-ready. They have similar requirements, so a PC that works with one should work with the other. If you bought or built a decent gaming PC within the past three or four years, you might only need to replace the video card to get it up to spec.
A desktop PC with the bare minimum specs to run a VR headset runs about $800 without a monitor, mouse, keyboard, or speakers. It’s worth spending more if you can. If you prefer to build your own, IGN and Logical Increments have decent parts lists at several price tiers.
For room-scale experiences with the HTC Vive or with the Rift + Touch, you’ll need, well, a room. The Vive requires a space that’s at least 5 by 6.5 feet, and can scale up to 11.5 by 11.5 feet. The Rift’s experimental room-scale VR setup (PDF) requires a third sensor and a play area between 5 feet by 7.5 feet and 8 feet by 8 feet. Most current Rift experiences require a more reasonable 5-by-5–foot square, but you won’t be able to play the more space-intensive games.
Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap are augmented reality, not virtual reality–they overlay virtual objects and information on top of the real world, and they don’t obstruct your vision like VR does. They’re both promising, but not ready yet: HoloLens is available only as a $3,000 development kit, and Magic Leap is veiled by secrecy. It’s possible that augmented reality is the future and VR kits like Rift and Vive are an evolutionary dead end, but if so, we just don’t know yet.
Fove, a VR headset that is up for preorder, will offer eye tracking, promising better immersion and an experience you can control just by moving your eyes. But, as Adi Robertson points out at The Verge, it doesn’t have motion-tracking controllers, it doesn’t seem to offer room-scale VR, and it doesn’t work with SteamVR.
The OSVR offering is only available as a development kit right now, and that’s only with a headset: no room-scale sensors, no controllers. It’s an open-source “VR ecosystem” that works with a variety of different hardware. It also runs a decent subset of the games available on SteamVR. If you’re a developer, it’s an interesting option, but most people shouldn’t get it.
The two main smartphone VR ecosystems, the Google Daydream View and Samsung Gear VR, can’t do as much as the Vive, Rift, or PSVR, but they cost much less, only require a smartphone, and are more portable. Check out our guide to them here.
Everything. As long as good VR experiences tether you to an expensive machine, they’ll be niche. But various companies, including Intel and Oculus, are working on wireless headsets, and there’s a third-party wireless adapter for the Vive headset that’s available in China.
LG has demonstrated a SteamVR headset that works with the same Lighthouse tracking system that the HTC Vive uses. The prototype has a higher resolution than the HTC Vive and a more comfortable headset, but LG has yet to state a launch date or price.
Microsoft is launching a VR and AR interface for Windows in 2017. Windows Holographic will work with the Rift, Vive, and HoloLens headsets, as well as others forthcoming from PC makers like Lenovo. The first of these, from Acer, began shipping as a dev kit to some developers in March, and the final version should be available for $400 in late 2017.
Phones are getting more powerful, Rift- and Vive-capable hardware is getting smaller, and there’s already hand-tracking tech that doesn’t require controllers, not to mention the augmented-reality tech noted above. We may look back in a few years and marvel at the simplicity of the Rift and the Vive, but for now they’re the best things we have.
(Photos by Signe Brewster.)