The era of desktop VR is upon us. The Rift CV1, the first consumer version of Oculus' headset, started arriving for (some) customers who pre-ordered it, and the first consumer HTC Vive units have also shipped. Along with those two PC-based systems, PlayStation VR looms, providing a VR experience similar to that of the Rift and Vive, but powered by a PlayStation 4. Sony recently announced that PlayStation VR will be available in October. By the end of the year, then, there will be three first-class virtual reality offerings to choose from, making 2016 truly the first “year of VR.”
However, as the results of our VR Readiness Survey show, many of you have not yet committed to investing in VR. The survey points to many reasons, from uncertainty about VR in general to not having a VR-ready PC and hefty price tags on the HMDs themselves. Despite that, we’d like to think once you've had the chance to experience high-end VR, you'll change your mind. Then you'll have to decide which system to pursue. We’ve put together this handy guide, detailing and analyzing the specifications and features, to help you decide. We aren’t going to tell you which system is the best in this article. For that, you have to read our full reviews of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Obviously we won't have a verdict on the PlayStation VR until this coming fall.
Before we dive into the details of these competing high-end virtual reality solutions, we want to position them properly so you understand why they are considered the pinnacle of VR now. To begin, we need to talk about presence, the term used to describe the feeling you get when the virtual experience truly feels like you have been transported somewhere else, which, after all, is the goal.
Oculus’ Chief Scientist Michael Abrash (who was formerly with Valve) described in his 2014 Steam Dev Days presentation that “presence is distinct from immersion, which merely means that you feel surrounded by the image of the virtual world; presence means that you feel like you’re in the virtual world.” Its importance is that (and this is why VR is such transformative technology) “it is one of the most powerful experiences you can have outside reality,” and “for many people, presence is simply magic.”
The sense of presence gets stronger the more advanced the VR hardware gets. When you experience mobile VR solutions like Google Cardboard or Samsung’s Gear VR, although they provide some compelling and immersive experiences, it's rare to feel a sense of presence when using them. Abrash outlined the minimum VR hardware specifications to achieve presence, including a wide field of view, adequate resolution, high display refresh rate and accurate six degrees of freedom (6DoF) tracking. He then concluded with the slide above, listing what he thought would be technologically feasible by 2015 for a VR head-mounted display (HMD) that “would support a powerful sense of presence.”
Do the three high-end VR solutions available or coming soon meet or exceed Abrash’s requirements in 2016? Yes, the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR all do, and they should enable a powerful sense of presence. This is what separates those products from the Cardboards and Gear VRs of the world, and why they are significantly more expensive. Mobile VR solutions don’t support 6DoF tracking, and they don't have high refresh rate displays, among the various gaps that prevent them from achieving presence.
Although each of the three high-end systems exceed Abrash’s requirements for presence, there are some differences and misconceptions. The biggest one involves the virtual play space (seated, standing and room scale) each one supports. The short answer is that Oculus' Rift doesn't provide full room-scale VR yet, although add-on Touch controllers promise to enable it when they ship later this year.
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