We compare the big three virtual reality headsets to see which is better than the rest
Virtual reality will indisputably be the next big thing in computing, with the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony’s PlayStation VR all vying for a piece of the action.
Whether it’s going to be a genuine revolution or merely a flash-in-the-pan gimmick is still a subject of debate, but it’s clear that the next six months are going to see some big changes in the nascent VR market.
We examine the credentials of all three main players to see who’s ahead in the major categories of games, display, features and more.
Virtual reality has seemed like a far-off pipe dream for many years, but it’s actually getting pretty close; within the next six months, all three major players will have released their headsets.
HTC’s Vive is the first to receive an officially-confirmed launch window, arriving in April 2016. After that, there are the consumer versions of the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR.
Both are loosely scheduled to debut in the first half of 2016. Oculus may just pip Sony to the post, however, as rumours suggest that PlayStation VR could be released as late as Q2 while the Oculus Rift is still on track for Q1.
For those that absolutely cannot wait, the Oculus Rift is currently the only one you can actually get your hands right now. For the princely sum of $350, early adopters can purchase the second iteration of the Oculus Rift development kit, known as the DK2, which is out now.
Of course, it’s designed for game studios rather than consumers, which means it’s more than a little rough around the edges. If you haven’t already picked one up, you’re much better off waiting for the full retail release.
All three companies are playing their cards pretty close to their chests regarding the retail pricing of their devices, but there are a few clues that can be inferred from what we know already.
The HTC Vive, for example, will almost certainly be a little pricier than its rivals as executives have stated their aim of providing “a premium VR experience”. “We know there is some pent-up demand”, executives have said, “so there’s not so much price sensitivity early on”.
As the best-known VR company, Oculus is generally a good baseline to use when examining consumer VR devices. Although concrete prices haven’t been announced, comments from CEO Palmer Luckey imply that it’s likely to launch for around £300-£400.
Based on this, we can surmise that the HTC Vive’s initial retail price will be around the £500 mark, potentially dropping in price to compete with rivals as and when they emerge.
PlayStation VR is something of a wild card in terms of price. Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida previously stated that the headset’s price would be “as low as possibly can be done”, but Sony Computer Entertainment CEO Andrew House has pegged the eventual retail price as equivalent to that of a new gaming platform.
With the PS3 and PS4’s launch prices in mind, this would suggest that Sony is aiming to release PlayStation VR for around £350. This is unconfirmed, however, and may change by the time it actually hits shelves.
If this all sounds alarmingly expensive, don’t worry – a space with this many players in it is naturally going to see stiff market competition, and we’d expect this to drive some not insignificant price drops within the first six months.
At this juncture, firm statistics and specifications are somewhat thin on the ground, as none of the devices have yet had a full release. We do have some figures, however, some of which are useful for establishing a baseline.
One figure we can be fairly certain of is the Oculus Rift’s resolution – the consumer model is set to run at 2160 x 1200. That’s one display, split across both eyes, and equates to a per-eye resolution of 1080 x 1200.
This was revealed in a blog post by Oculus’s chief architect, Atman Binstock, and can be assumed to be fairly accurate. It is, however, subject to change, and could be scaled up closer to the Rift’s launch.
While there are currently no available specs for the HTC Vive’s finished model, the developer edition is also listed with a resolution of 1080 x 1200 pixels per eye. As this is only a preliminary dev kit, this could conceivably receive an upgrade for the consumer version, but it’s equally possible that this will be the device’s final display.
PlayStation VR is currently trailing a little behind the pack on display, with a resolution of 1920 x 1080, also divided between both eyes. In practise, this gives it a resolution of 960 x 1080 for each eye, which is less than both of its main competitors. This is something that we expect will improve substantially prior to the device’s market debut.
Particularly in terms of display resolution, it’s wise to take all of this information with a pinch of salt. Not only is it still officially unconfirmed, it’s also arguably not that relevant. That’s because, after a certain point, the levels of immersion generated by VR effectively force your brain to ignore any visual flaws, glossing over any pixelation or colour issues.
What are far more important are the frame rate (also known as the refresh rate) and the latency. The often imperceptible delay between moving your head and the game responding was a persistent cause of motion sickness in early VR tests, as were the frame rates of the first headsets.
While 60fps is widely regarded as the gold standard for current-gen gaming, it’s not sufficient when the screen is inches from a user’s eyeballs. The usually near-imperceptible flickering effect caused by the ‘missing’ frames is greatly exacerbated by the user’s proximity to the display.
Instead, most manufacturers have opted for a higher refresh rate – around 90Hz in most cases. Both the Vive and the Rift operate at this frame rate, but PlayStation VR has reportedly upped the frame rate to a blistering 120fps.
It remains to be seen whether the difference is noticeable enough to justify opting for PlayStation VR over any competitors, but it’s likely that refresh rates will see successive upgrades as VR technologya progresses.
While precision head tracking was a jaw-dropping innovation when it was first seen on the Oculus Rift, it’s become more or less the minimum requirement for a VR headset. Companies are now rushing to supplement head-tracking with other killer features, most of which are currently focused around motion control.
Both the Rift and PlayStation VR have unveiled efforts at motion control systems. PlayStation VR uses a set of PlayStation Move controllers, remnants from an earlier attempt to jump on the Wii’s bandwagon.
It’s a great use for a system that was severely underwhelming at launch and feels like the use case that Move has been waiting for since day one. PlayStation VR is also set to be compatible with the motion control elements built into the standard Dualshock 4 gamepad.
Oculus revealed the consumer version of its VR headset at an event just before this year’s E3 show and, in a surprise announcement, also showed off Oculus Touch for the first time.
Functionally identical to PlayStation Move batons, the ‘half moon’ prototypes shown off at the event come as a matched set, with each controller featuring a thumbstick, trigger and two buttons, as well as precision hand-tracking.
For gamers that prefer to play with more traditional inputs, the Oculus Rift will be bundled with an Xbox One controller at launch. It’s likely that the majority of games will use traditional controls towards the start of VR’s lifespan as developers still aren’t totally familiar with the new peripherals.
While PlayStation VR and the Oculus Rift have been working on integrating hand-tracking with their devices, HTC and Valve have taken it one step further. While the HTC Vive also has hand-tracking, courtesy of two motion wands with the standard complement of triggers, buttons and trackpads, it also provides room tracking.
Two ‘lighthouse’ base stations mounted in either corner of the room map out a playable area from three square feet up to 15 square feet. Players can then move around this space at will, with their movements in real space translating to in-game motion in real time.
It’s an unprecedented innovation, and it works superbly, both in terms of function and for creating a sense of immersion within the game. Out of all of the VR systems we’ve tested (all of which, it’s worth noting, have been early developer prototypes), the HTC Vive was the most impressive by far.
As with any new gaming-focused technology, a strong library of titles is going to be the only thing that powers mass adoption. In this respect, both the Vive and the Rift will do well right out of the gate.
As PC devices, they’ll have access to Steam and its sizeable library of pre-existing VR content. On top of this, indie and Triple-A developers alike are working on new games and experiences for the platform, including Valve itself.
The Surgeon Simulator game will be available on all three VR platforms
PlayStation VR is no slouch, either. This year’s games conventions have held plenty of teases for Morpheus’ upcoming titles, from the sporty battle-mech combat of Rigs to indie adventure game The Assembly.
Among the more impressive displays is The London Heist. While technically still a tech demo, the two sections that have been shown to fans so far have nonetheless been astoundingly well-received, and the VR crim-sim seems destined for release as a flagship title for Sony’s headset.
However, it’s more than likely that until the long-term viability of VR has been concretely proven, PlayStation VR and its ilk will be used more for optional modes than for standalone experiences, as indicated by comments from Shawn Layden, CEO of SCEA.
Realistically, there’s going to be no shortage of launch games for any of the big three VR headsets, but continued investment and adoption will lead to bigger, better and more exciting content.