Virtual Reality Headset Buying Guide
If you're planning on buying a virtual reality headset, you need to decide if you want something low-budget, mid-priced, or high-end. Not only will this affect the amount you'll pay for the headset, but it will determine the features, specifications, and functions.
Low-Budget – Low budget VR headsets include options like the Google Cardboard or other similar devices. You'll pay anywhere from $10 to $50 for these simple headsets, which are little more than smartphone holders you wear over your eyes. They're foldable, which makes them highly portable, and they rely on your smartphone touchscreen for control options rather than any buttons or inputs.
These low-budget options tend to have limited interactivity, and they're not suitable for long hours of use—they're both uncomfortable and can strain your eyes. However, they do provide 360-degree video. Aside from the classic Google Cardboard, you can find a wide variety or even make your own alternatives. You'll find they're suitable for use not only with your Android smartphone, but even iOS smartphones.
In terms of apps, you'll find there are a pretty broad range of apps compatible with Google Cardboard. While versatility may be limited, it's great for watching YouTube videos in 360-degrees or in a VR simulation of a large-screen TV.
Mid-Priced – Mid-priced VR headsets include options like Samsung's Gear VR, Zeiss VR One, or Homido. These are more than just VR phone cases—they're actually proper headsets powered by your smartphone, offering everything from built-in controls to focus wheels to separate screens.
For your basic mid-priced VR headset, you can expect to pay from $75 to $125. Samsung's Gear VR is the costliest of the mid-priced options, but it's also the best, most versatile, and most reliable. The software is fully optimized, the control system is much more effective than Google Cardboard, and there's a dedicated VR app store. In some cases, you can even get the Gear VR headset with the purchase of a new Samsung phone.
It's important to note that the Gear VR headset only works with the latest-model Samsung phones, and LG's 360 VR headset only works with the latest-model LG phones. They may be compatible with certain iPhone models.
Some users have reported motion sickness with these mid-priced VR headsets, thanks to the highly interactive, fast-moving experience. Tethered headsets are the only option that offer reliable positional tracking.
For those who want more control over their VR headset, these mid-priced options do offer external controllers and a user-friendly gamepad/input system. However, a number of reviewers have called the mid-priced headsets aside from the Samsung Gear VR a "mixed bag" in terms of quality.
High-End – High-end VR headsets include options like the Oculus Rift, Sony PlayStation VR, and HTC Vive. These headsets all run off external systems or consoles, which allows them to offer much more sophisticated features—everything from motion tracking to quality graphics to high-resolution screens—than anything mobile-powered VR headsets could.
These high-end headsets are pricey—the Oculus Rift will run at least $599, while the Vive is a whopping $799. However, in addition to the headsets, you'll also need a computer capable of running the virtual reality software—software that is CPU-intensive.
The average computer just isn't able to keep up with most of the demands of VR software, so you may need to spend as much as $1,000 for a quality computer with enough processing power.
High-end VR headsets also need space to move around—anywhere from 4 to 8 feet in every direction. The headsets use positional tracking to move you through the space in your virtual world, but that means you need free space in your gaming room.
The headsets are integrated with physical controllers (the Xbox One controller for the Oculus Rift, and the PlayStation 4 controller for the Playstation VR), but they have motion controllers built into the headsets that allow you to control your world hands-free. There are also external Touch motion controllers available for these high-end headsets (see the section "What are Virtual Reality Controllers?" below).
How to Get the Most Out of Your Virtual Reality Headset
So you've gone and bought a virtual reality headset—be it the Samsung Gear, Google Cardboard, or the Oculus Rift. Before you insert your smartphone or connect the headset to your PC for some virtual gaming, here are a few tips to help you maximize your VR experience:
Keep it clean – You know how gross it is to use a console controller after someone with greasy, sweaty hands, right? Well, your VR headset isn't much different—it comes in contact with the skin of your (and your friend's) face.
Our faces produce a lot more skin oil than other parts of our bodies, meaning the headset is more likely to get grease on it. You can use a VR cover (like a pillowcase for your headset) to keep it free of skin oils, but you should still wipe down the controller between uses.
If you're the type of user who wants to clean the headset regularly, invest in compressed air, a dust cloth, and some lens cleaner. It will take a few seconds to wipe down, dust, and air-clean your headset after every use. Regular cleaning will expand the device's lifespan!
Use shaving foam – Freefly VR offers a nifty trick to help you keep your headset lenses from fogging up: apply a thin layer of shaving foam to a clean lens, and let it sit for about 5 minutes. Use an anti-static cloth to buffer the lenses and clean off the foam. The shaving foam will prevent fogging for about 3 days of regular use.
Charge your phone – If you're using a phone-controlled VR headset, you need to realize that the headset and the VR apps will use A LOT of your battery life. If you're not on 100% battery, you're going to run out of power far more quickly. Make sure your phone is fully charged before you start VR gaming.
Close background apps – The last thing you need is MORE apps sucking up your battery life while you're VR gaming. Make sure to close any apps you don't need—you can always re-open them later once you're done. Be certain to turn off any and all apps that access your phone's camera, as that may interfere with your headset's functionality—it uses your camera to track your focus and control the VR software. Also, you don't want text or email notifications to pop up while you're in the middle of an intense gaming session.
Wear headphones – VR headsets are more than just picture; you also need the quality sound for the full experience. Even if your smartphone has great sound quality, it won't suffice. Plug in a good pair of headphones to get the true 3D spatial audio of the software or game. Try using noise isolating or noise cancelling headphones for the full experience.
Use it while seated – In order to reduce the risk of accidents while VR gaming, make sure to play while sitting down. The last thing you want is to stumble over a coffee table or bump into your furniture in the middle of an intense gaming session.
Play on a swivel chair – For real fun, enjoy your VR experience on a swivel chair that allows you to spin a full 360-degrees. There are many VR apps that offer the full 360-degree range of motion, which you just won't get if you're sitting on a couch or your bed. Plus, who doesn't love spinning around on swivel chairs?
Playing on a swivel chair is also better for your neck. You should always turn your chair while trying to move your VR field of view, rather than craning your neck. The built-in motion sensors can recognize movements of your head independent of your neck movements, meaning that a twist of your head will be just the same as turning your whole body on the swivel chair. It's far easier on your neck muscles to turn your swivel chair!
Adjust until you've got it right – Whether you use the Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, or Samsung Gear VR, you want to make sure the headset is sitting correctly on your face and in the right position.
Adjust the headset so it blocks out all external light, and make sure your eyes are close enough to the lenses to get the full field of view. The headset should be seated firmly against your head, not so tight that it hurts but not so loose that it's falling off. Adjust the focal point of the lenses to sharpen the image and reduce the risk of motion sickness and eye strain.
Consider a motion controller – If you're going to play VR games, you may find that a handheld motion controller is your best friend. Not only does it give you more control over the games, but it speeds up your ability to navigate menus and other software features. It's much easier to use a controller than fiddle with the buttons on the headset.
Start out slow – If you're new to VR gaming, you may find that a fully immersive experience may cause you to experience motion sickness, dizziness, or eye strain. You may not yet be ready for the full-on VR experience, or for a VR horror game.
Look on the VR app store for apps that have a lower intensity rating. Lower intensity ratings will indicate a much simpler VR experience, one that has a lower chance of causing motion sickness. Start out with low intensity apps until you're accustomed to VR, then slowly increase the intensity as you feel comfortable.
Cool off – Your headset is very likely to heat up as the VR app taxes your phone's hardware. When your phone gets hot, it's going to slow down the frame rates of the VR apps. If you notice lag or slow frame rates, or you feel the headset is getting hot, turn it off and power down your phone.
Give your phone a few minutes of rest (maybe even re-charge it a bit) before continuing gaming. Overheating phones can be a serious issue, one that could lead to permanent damage to both the phone and headset. Plus, if you get too hot and start sweating, the heat and sweat can fog up the lenses.
Bonus: If your phone is prone to overheating, consider removing the visor on the outside of the headset (Samsung Gear VR offers this option). That way, your phone will get enough air flow to keep it cool while gaming.
Turn on "Comfort Mode" – Samsung's Gear VR offers "Comfort Mode", an option that lets you adjust how warm/cool the background lighting on the headset is. For those who suffer eye strain, motion sickness, or migraines, this option is a must-have!
What are Virtual Reality Motion Controllers?
Motion controllers are handheld controllers that are designed to be used alongside high-end VR headsets—such as the Oculus Rift or Sony PlayStation VR. These controllers include a thumbstick (like on a PlayStation/Xbox controller) that allows you to scroll through menus, adjust gameplay, and control the virtual world.
There may be a trackpad (like a VR version of a mouse) that works in tandem with the thumbstick. The motion controllers are meant to be gripped in both hands, and they play an important part of the overall VR experience.
For casual single gaming, these controllers can be a very useful addition. They offer another option for controlling the game beyond motion and focus tracking. However, when it comes to competitive gaming, they aren't quite as effective as standard console controllers or gaming mice.
There's a bit too much "jump" for precision control, and the response time is slightly slower than is required for the fast-paced world of online competitive gaming. That may change in the future with new upgrades, but for now, VR gaming is an experience best enjoyed among friends.