The Big VR Face-Off

Affordable next-gen VR is fast approaching, but which system’s best for you? We weigh up the options.

Written by Jim McCauley in partnership with NVIDIA

Virtual Reality has been just around the corner that it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that it’s going to arrive soon, in a form that you’ll actually be able to buy and that won’t make you nauseous after a few minutes’ immersion.

Chances are that your next big hardware purchase could be your very own VR (or AR – more on that later) system, but which one should you go for? Here we take a look at the big players and outline what’s on offer.

Oculus Rift
If there’s one name that’s synonymous with virtual reality at the moment, it’s Oculus Rift. Thanks to its original, headline-grabbing appearance as a Kickstarter project, and helped by Id’s John Carmack giving it his public backing (he’s now Oculus’ CTO), Oculus Rift came out of nowhere to become the one VR headset that everyone wanted to own. Getting bought out by Facebook – which notably resulted in Markus ‘Notch’ Persson announcing that he was cancelling the Rift version of Minecraft – raised the Oculus profile even higher.

The other big advantage that Oculus Rift has is that developers have had their hands on the hardware and SDKs for a while and there are already a number of games that support it. Over 100,000 DK2 units have been shipped to developers (and even if you’re not a developer you can order one now and get in on the fun ahead of the pack) and while a firm release date has yet to be set for the consumer version, it’s generally expected to be on sale this year, and for less than the $350 that you’d pay for a DK2. It should feature a resolution of at least 1920×1080 with a 90Hz refresh rate, with six degrees of freedom – 3-axis rotational tracking and 3-axis positional tracking – as well as integrated HRTF audio, wireless operation and an improved build quality over the development kits.

SteamVR
Described as “a full-featured, 360° room-scale VR experience”, Valve’s SteamVR, developed in partnership with HTC, is a more recent VR offering that appears to have the technical edge over Oculus Rift. The big advantage is the fact that whereas the Rift generally requires you to stay more or less in one place, SteamVR is made for moving around. It manages this thanks to the use of two base stations that you can place in opposite corners of a room, and which will map out the shape of the room and create a virtual space up to 15 foot square that you can safely explore without bumping into walls.

Unveiled at this year’s Game Developers Conference, SteamVR’s headset, the HTC Vive, features over 70 sensors to enable sub-millimetre accuracy in its tracking, and features two 1080×1200 screens with a 90Hz refresh rate. It also has the advantage of coming with its own controllers – a pair of single-handed devices based on Valve’s own Steam Controller and designed with VR interaction in mind. Valve has stated that the consumer version will be available to purchase by the end of the year, and it has just opened up applications for developers to order their own development kits. And while the Rift has the head start on available games, SteamVR’s free APIs and its ties with Valve’s steam system mean that it should quickly catch up. The downside, though, is that you can probably expect to pay more than for the Oculus Rift.

Oculus Rift and SteamVR have their differences, but what they both have in common, of course, is the need for a hefty piece of hardware to actually generate their VR worlds. It’s all very well having a gaming rig that can run a 1920×1080 monitor at 60fps, but creating an immersive VR experience takes things to a different level. Whether you opt for the Rift or SteamVR, you’ll need hardware that can run two high-resolution screens simultaneously at 90fps with minimum latency. Basically, you’re going to need a bigger GPU; whether it’s something from NVIDIA’s GeForce 900 series or AMD’s R9 series, you’ll want something that can keep pace with your headset without dropping a frame, and which can give you a crisp, anti-aliased image that won’t break the illusion of reality.

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Microsoft HoloLens
There’s another option, though, and while it’s not VR it’s something that offers an intriguing alternative to the full-on immersive options of Oculus Rift and SteamVR. Microsoft’s HoloLens is pitched as “the first fully untethered, see-through holographic computer”, and instead of immersing you in your own virtual world, it superimposes high definition 3D imagery onto the real world that you can interact with using hand gestures, similar to those used with Microsoft’s Kinect system. If you find the idea of virtual reality a little intimidating – or if you’re worried that once you’re in you might never want to come out – Microsoft’s Augmented Reality headset might just be the thing for you.

The big benefit is that for the HoloLens you won’t need to splash out for a top-end GPU to run it; instead the HoloLens is a self-contained system that, says Microsoft, contains more computing power than the average laptop. Which, when you think about it, isn’t a great amount of power, but considering that it’s not having to generate an entire VR environment but instead projects 3D objects on top of your actual surroundings, that may well be more than enough for the job. There’s no release date for the HoloLens yet, but with support built into Windows 10 – not to mention the seductive possibility of Minecraft projected onto your tabletop, and Unity support just announced – Microsoft could well be onto a winner, assuming the price isn’t too prohibitive; we fully expect this to be the most expensive option of the lot.

17 thoughts on “The Big VR Face-Off”

  1. Normally I would say occulus rift, but after it was bought by facebook it has become dead to me. I don't need that kind of data mining in my life. Also what the heck are the ads going to be like?! yuck! (yeah they may say there won't be any. All that would mean is “there won't be any until we think we can get away with it because it's too late)

  2. Normally I would say occulus rift, but after it was bought by facebook it has become dead to me. I don't need that kind of data mining in my life. Also what the heck are the ads going to be like?! yuck! (yeah they may say there won't be any. All that would mean is “there won't be any until we think we can get away with it because it's too late)

  3. Normally I would say occulus rift, but after it was bought by facebook it has become dead to me. I don't need that kind of data mining in my life. Also what the heck are the ads going to be like?! yuck! (yeah they may say there won't be any. All that would mean is “there won't be any until we think we can get away with it because it's too late)

  4. Normally I would say occulus rift, but after it was bought by facebook it has become dead to me. I don't need that kind of data mining in my life. Also what the heck are the ads going to be like?! yuck! (yeah they may say there won't be any. All that would mean is “there won't be any until we think we can get away with it because it's too late)

  5. I kinda expected this article to be updated since Oculus has some of the official details already: https://www.oculus.com/blog/powering-the-rift/
    They also have an upcoming press/insider event on June 11 where they presumably share some more info or let people try the consumer version possibly.

    I'll likely end up with at least two VR HMD's myself, but I'm more excited about the Lighthouse tech and Vive currently–it's some impressive kit–elegant tracking that is gonna be hard to beat. Not to mention the steam controller perks that the Vive controllers inherit.

    And since neither of the big names seem to be doing it, FOVE has some interesting stuff going on with the eye-tracking. (they almost already reached their kickstarter goal within the first two days–they have some outside backers as well so we're certain to hear more from them too)

  6. Oculus is going to be ruined by facebook, games, community, everything about it will be terrible. Steam is the only place with the game experience imo that can bring a worth while product to the table. And facebook is just the scummiest company on earth. I mean dat datamining should be illegal.

  7. Microsoft hololens looks amazing if you watch the videos from the release. Also, HTC vr looks pretty good as well. Oculus I haven't really seen much on, so it's up in the air. I just hope whoever sells these has all three on display for testing.

  8. Facebook has owned Oculus for quite a while, facebook hasn't messed up anything yet, just like every other facebook brought out company they will not directly interfere in that kind of way all complainers (Tin foil hatters) are on about.

    Valve/Steam has already shown how incapable it is at producing hardware/software. It has made a lot of bad choices over the years and still hasn't learnt nothing. Luckily enough the only thing that steam has touched with the HTC Vive is its own VR SDK.

  9. @GekzOverlord You do realize that Valve is not only behind the innovations behind the Vive but also that they are the ones who enlightened Oculus to low persistence screens, among other things. Also, Oculus bought a bunch of Valve talent after the Facebook buyout.
    Valve is not infallible, and have made mistakes, but they've also put out some great software. HTC will be doing the engineering and manufacturing of the Vive, but the designs came from Valve–it looks like a winning combo to me. Lighthouse technology is completely from Valve and it's brilliant.
    Oculus now has a very high bar to hit for input. I'm skeptical that they'll have something better that lighthouse, but hoping they bring something interesting to the table. (we'll probably know on June 11)

  10. Occulus also hasn't produced anything but prototype stuff either. The business model for data mining companies such as Google and face book is pretty straight forward:
    produce a good or service that is useful give it away in the beginning with few if any strings, and wait for it to become the dominant system because who can compete with free? Once it is dominant make it so people HAVE to use it by tying other software to it. For example You may have bought a piece of software, but you can no longer update it or use its features without a data miner account. After that is going for a while, start dismantling you privacy system and expand the invasiveness of your products to ramp up the value of your user herd. They are now complaining loudly and fighting you, but you are too deeply linked into their lives for them to be able to flee. You own them, and now you can market them.

    This is what Facebook and Google have done, are doing, and will do again. Thinking “oh, but it will be special and different this time” is the same naivete of a woman returning to an abusive boyfriend.

  11. I'm wondering if they'll make a VR system that spans about 130 to 140 degrees for better immersion. After 3 screens, I'd hate to go back to the 70 to 90 fov. Especially when I can just get three 3d projectors.

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