Until a few years ago, virtual reality was among the innovations that seemed too far out of reach for the average consumer. Now, thanks to determined players in the industry, VR has made the bold leap from Sci-Fi movie scenes to real-life homes and workplaces.
Customers have a pleasant range of products to choose from, across all mainstream computing and gaming platforms. Even better is, if you're budget-conscious, you can get to experience breath-taking VR for less than $100 with nothing more than a smartphone and an inexpensive mobile VR headset.
The market has something for everyone; from the heavily invested PC enthusiast to the casual smartphone user. If you're new to VR, however, it can be tough to discern what equipment best suits your needs and your budget. Nonetheless, knowing the ups and downs to every option is a good place to start.
PC and Console VR: Premium VR for a premium price
Because of the use of powerful hardware, PCs and consoles provide top-notch visual quality. They also come with external sensors and trackers, which enable a user to emulate real head and body movements in the virtual world, as well as hand-held controllers that can be used to interact with environmental elements as you would in a physical space. The overall result is a thrilling VR experience, whether you're gaming, tooling around with creative utilities, taking a virtual dive into the sea or exploring the vast cosmos.
On the flip side, however, PC and PlayStation VR doesn't come cheap. Getting a desktop or laptop-based virtual reality setup will plow deep into your wallet because not only will you need to shell out hundreds of dollars for the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift headset, but there'll also be the additional investment of a high-end gaming laptop or desktop that's capable of handling VR content.
Mobile VR: A much cheaper alternative
Far more affordable than PC or PS4 VR equipment, mobile headsets are primarily a wearable shell with a couple of lenses, into which you slot in your smartphone. The lenses are cleverly arranged to separate the image on the phone's screen into two frames, which to the human eye appear multidimensional.
Because your phone does all the processing, do not expect the quality that you can get from a PS4 or a VR-ready computer. Also, mobile VR gear typically excludes multi-functional in-hand controllers, which mean you won't be able to pick out rocks or a weapon in a game.
Other than the obvious value for the money, mobile headsets have the advantage of being much more pleasant to wear because they don't require unwieldy cable connections to a processing unit or external sensors.
If you're hell-bent on getting unparalleled immersion into the world of VR with high-resolution rendering, fast refresh rates, room-scale motion tracking and physical controller, by all means, go the PC or the console way. However, any casual user that's merely curious about VR will be just fine with mobile headsets.
More Smartphone-friendly Options
While HTC, Oculus, and Sony almost entirely dominate PC- and console-based VR, there's quite a variety of smartphone headsets on the market.
Samsung's Gear VR and Google's Daydream View are the most popular. Both are comfortable, lightweight and attractively designed to appeal to any potential buyer, but the new View is the more celebrated of the two gadgets, particularly because of its notably lower price tag and broader smartphone compatibility. The Gear, on the other hand, triumphs in the content department thanks to its large pool of VR games, TV shows, and films.
Besides the two heavyweights, other admirable headsets include the versatile Zeiss VR One Plus and the seriously impressive FreeFly VR, which packs dual-Crossfire capacitive touch triggers on each side for better control of your games.
The future of mobile virtual reality
Following the introduction and success of the Daydream View last year, many experts suggest that 2017 could mark the rise of mobile VR to heights beyond its PC and console counterparts.
Speaking at CES 2017 earlier this year, Oculus co-founder Jack McCauley seemed pretty set on the idea that mobile is the platform to propel virtual reality into the next phase of innovation. Highlighting the success that the Gear VR had achieved in the market, McCauley's sentiments leaned on the Oculus Rift being too costly and cumbersome for most people. This means that the future of mobile VR could very much dictate what's next for virtual reality as a whole.
It's not just Google and Samsung that have expressed enthusiasm in smartphone-based VR. Qualcomm, the world's leading manufacturer of mobile chips, is crafting a new batch of processors that will support higher resolution imagery in lighter and more energy-efficient devices.
Then there’s Intel’s recently unveiled Project Alloy, which involves a mobile non-smartphone VR headset with everything, including a dedicated display, a Core i7 CPU, a GPU, and motion trackers all embedded in one compact unit. If successful, the company will have found a reasonable way to overcome the many limitations of using a smartphone for VR.
Aside from hardware advancements, software developers are coming up with more VR-friendly content every day. A future where social services like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube would incorporate virtual reality into their popular ecosystems is, therefore, very plausible.
Mobile virtual reality might still be in its early stages, but there's no denying that the future is bright. Soon, the devices we carry around in our pockets will enable us to not only connect and interact, but to also enter mesmerising digital realms at will.