What’s up everyone.
My name is Jesse Favalava and this article is about virtual reality hardware.
I hope this tier list of hardware and price points will help you make a better purchase decision.
I bought a virtual reality headset, The HTC Vive, about a year and a half ago.
What If I Told You Virtual Reality Is Accessible
VR has reached peaked accessibility in 2018 and can offer engaging experiences to nearly any person in a variety of price points but if you’re new to VR, this is the best time to buy an entry level product. After years of disappointment, most VR platforms offer engaging quality experiences across a variety of price points thanks to the hard work of thousands. While all price points benefit from better quality content and hardware, the Mid to High Tier products will see the most innovation. Today, a graduate fresh out of high-school can work less than part time and in one week, have enough money to buy a competitive and quality virtual reality headset; that’s amazing. I’m really impressed with how much quality there is in the market but I feel like things aren’t going to change anytime innovation wise. Which means that now is a great time to buy a headset because unless we’re hit with some unexpected product or technological advancement, experiences across headsets will be pretty consistent at pretty fixed prices.
Low Tier Headsets Are Lens Kits
These phone headset combinations have such a wide pool of potential phone combinations, screen sizes, and pixel densities, that the virtual reality experiences will always be different and visually low quality.
I believe these types of headsets do more damage to the public’s perception of VR than good because the experiences offered in these tiers generally lack the hardware necessary to deliver a worthy VR experience. If this was your first and only VR experience platform, I’m sorry.
Google Cardboard is a VR lens kit which is compatible with many phones. You’ve probably seen this somewhere or a similar paper-based lens kit. This is the bottom rung of VR and even in cardboard form offers a similar VR experience to other the dedicated lens kits created by brands you have never heard of. The major flaw of lens kits is that they only use a small portion of the screen and deliver a very low-resolution experience even if you have the latest phone and best display.
Google DayDream Platform is the brand name for Google’s custom lens kit. This headset has amazing ergonomics, lens quality, and built-in sound which ultimately means it is comfortable. DayDream is designed to accommodate only the latest smartphones which means that if you have a Google Approved phone you’ll be able to use this platform and have a high quality, though low tier, experience. This tier also sees the Oculus Gear VR, which is a headset lens kit created for use with Samsung Galaxy phones. This is basically the same business model as Google DayDreams Platform, in that a specific custom headset and phone combination gives a consistent VR experience worthy of brand recognition. I feel like it’s important to mention that Branded Lens Kits often come with a specific VR software catalog or store which allow companies like Google, Facebook, and Samsung the ability to choose which content is good enough to be delivered to the VR user. What all this means is that while still a low tier headset, technically Lens Kit, these offer much better experiences that the Google Cardboard Tier Lens Kits where there is no filtering of low quality content.
Don’t spend money on the low tier.
Mid Tier Headsets Are True Virtual Reality Devices
The primary difference between mid-tier and low tier is what is used to power the headset. The mid-tier doesn’t use a phone which means every headset has a built-in, dedicated screen designed to be used with its partnered lens. This will dramatically increase the visual experience and means this is truly a VR headset. The mid-tier is a mix of dedicated standalone headsets and those that are powered by a computer.
The Oculus GO and Lenovo Mirage are standalone, mobile headsets with a dedicated screen.
This is an amazing piece of technology that costs only $200 and is a great platform for the casual consumer. You don’t even have to be gaming on this machine to get a great VR experience because this all in one lens, screen, and sound system is perfect consuming all kinds of content across a variety of entertainment apps you already use, like Netflix and Youtube. However, if you want to experience the best VR gaming experiences in this tier, you need to check out the Lenovo Mirage Solo. This headset is basically a super beefed up Oculus Go and as of June 2018, represents the peak of VR technology that isn’t attached to a computer in some way. These experiences use the Google DayDream and Oculus Stores for their content distribution.
Windows Mixed Reality Devices
Microsoft created their own lineup of approved virtual reality headsets designed for the Windows experience. This means that they have the ability to gate-keep products unless they meet certain hardware and software specification, ultimately the quality of Windows Mixed Reality Devices is pretty amazing for their price point. While all these types of headsets are desktop powered, there is still a variety in the quality depending on how specs of the desktop, the quality of the lenses, and the resolution of the screen. The only Windows Mixed Reality Headset worth buying is the Lenovo Explorer. This mid-tier headset is amazing because it offers a true, out of the box wireless experience which means you are not physically tethered to your PC by a cord when playing and this dramatically helps with immersion and ease of use. This headset can be found on sale for $200 and when paired with a GTX 1060 can deliver a quality Beat Saber experience.The only High End Mixed Reality reality headset worth splurging on is the Samsung Odyssey because it features a better quality screen and lens system. Overall, it appears that Samsung is the dominant manufacturer of Windows Mixed Reality Devices.
These devices are mid-tier but truly offer a 2018 VR experience. This is my VR standard and should be the entry-level point for anyone excited about the technology.
These devices offer room scale movement which means you have 6 degrees of freedom to move forward, backward, side to side, lean left and right, move up and down and have all these movements recognized in your virtual world. This tier is out of reach today for many people because it requires a powerful gaming computer which isn’t something a lot of people have. The type of experiences offered by desktop powered headsets with room-scale movement tracking should have been the first experiences for many people because I think it creates a lasting excitement for the technology when compared to first time phone based VR users.
The Lenovo Explorer is only $100 and should be the go-to device for any gamer looking to get into the platform. This is the most bang for your buck headset in August 2018, matches most of the features of the Top Tier virtual reality category and I would have bought this over an HTC Vive if they came out at the same time. I’m telling you that any kid fresh out of high school can work less than part-time in LA county and have enough money to buy a Lenovo Explorer virtual reality headset in 1 week.
Top Tier Headsets Have The Best Body Tracking And Immersion
The top tier of VR has products with very long lifespans and is where the ancient husks of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift hang out. This tier offers the best possible room scale tracking available by using physical sensors that you place around your room. This tier has much better tracking vs the mid-tier and is what separates them. The tracking technology in these headsets was already top tier at launch in 2016 and continues to deliver a better experience vs camera-based tracking. Technically, the HTC Vive is better at tracking over the Oculus Rift because it sets the bar for tracking accuracy using only two sensors while the Oculus Rift needs 3 to compete. However, the Rift excels ergonomically and is a much more comfortable headset out of the box while also including built in speakers; even though built in sound is cool, virtual reality is still best experienced with noise cancelling headphones.
Exclusive Software Matters in the Top Tier
Both of these headsets have their own proprietary software stores, where Oculus is the winner by a landslide. The amount of quality content that Facebook is dumping money into is astounding. Without a doubt, the Oculus Rift is a better headset when you factor in Exclusive Platform Specific Software and 3rd party services like Virtual Reality Esports and integrated Virtual Social Networks. Luckily for HTC users, there are ways to experience Oculus Services but it’s a pain in the ass for a couple reasons and probably won’t last forever.
Meanwhile, in Neutral Town, both headsets have access to the Steam store, where both are winners and represent the majority of the VR population on the biggest VR software distribution platform.
Similar Displays and Experiences, but Oculus does it Cheaper
Both headsets have similar displays, although I hear more people saying the Oculus is better when compared. I prefer the HTV Vive’s Display more though because it has greater Field of View.
The Oculus Rift is only $400 and to me, that’s dirt cheap for the amount of quality VR experiences available.
Even though I use the HTC Vive and appreciate how Steam and HTC don’t engage in hyper-competitive business. I have to recommend the Oculus Rift to any person trying to get into the true definitive tier of virtual reality because tt just offers so much more at a lower price which means you can invest more into the machine powering it. I truly believe that virtual reality headsets in the Top Tier will continue to be the primary development platform for a majority developers.
Luxury Headsets See The Most Innovation
The only headset, that you can buy, in this category, is the HTC Vive Pro. This headset has the best possible tracking available today and will be compatible with next-gen sensors which will have an insanely greater tracking range which means it is practically future proof in that regard. The headset boasts the greatest screen quality today when compared to any headset that offers the same amount of tracking. This headset is designed to be easy to use, the sound is built in, and headset ergonomics have never been easier to adjust for something of this quality. This headset is modular and was designed to accommodate future attachments. If you compare this product to virtual reality headsets at launch in 2016, it’s the culmination of every advancement across every manufacturer but even the best product in the industry still leaves room for improvement.
People in the luxury tier are spending thousands on this sort of equipment but are, in my opinion, experiencing the highest peaks of consumer technology on the planet. BUT This is where VR has diminishing returns. Many people believe the price of this headset isn’t worth it because the display improvement doesn’t justify the cost and at $1200 for the headset, controllers, and sensors, you’re looking at the steepest VR entry point but also the consumer peak. When the first HTC Vive launched, it was $800 but today it is only $500 and $400 on sale which is an insane price drop over two years. I can’t wait for HTC to have the Vive Pro replace the first gen as the entry level headset when it comes down in price.
The HTC Vive Pro is the only Luxury Headset out today but will face competition in the coming year from Oculus’ second generation Half Dome Headset and from the startup Pimax with their 8k resolution headset, the highest resolution ever in a VR device.
The Future Of Luxury Headsets
I won’t name any of the future, planned headsets that will probably sit here but I can tell you what sort of things they’ll offer. These headsets will offer a greater resolution which will make everything more detailed and clear. These headsets will offer a great field of view, meaning you’ll have greater access to peripheral vision. These headsets will come out of the box with high quality, surround sound capable of competing with studio level headphones. These headsets will be truly wireless while having a long battery life. These headsets will be comfortable, light and will be able to accommodate any user. These headsets will have an advanced tracking system that will have the same level of accuracy as today, but without the need for additional sensors placed around physical space.
These headsets will require computer hardware that probably doesn’t exist yet.
The future for both hardware and software looks good. I like seeing the level of competition and improvement in the industry and I feel like with Oculus and HTC consistently raise the bar whenever they launch a new product. The amount of improvement that each new headset brings is a much more noticeable jump in quality over last year’s flagship. The year to year improvements in phones and laptops don’t seem as impressive as the ones in virtual reality hardware and that leaves me excited for the future, assuming I can afford a luxury headset.
Luckily, the Windows Mixed Reality devices really filled into a good part of the market while being impressively quality products for their price. Which means that even though the future of technology is inaccessible to most the current, already impressive technology is available to all; also Beat Saber ready headsets are only $100 now.
This article doesn’t talk about software much but addresses the clear fact that Facebook, Oculus, is winning when it comes to innovation.
For me it was important for a buying or shoppers guide to talk about exclusive platform services and software and not address platform agnostic software like most games.
There are so many experiences that I’ve really come to enjoy and I think you should all try them out too.
You can find them here in my other article which is exclusively about my favorite VR experiences that you have to try.
But first you should add to the discussion and comment!
What Do You Think?
How much would you spend on a virtual reality headset? Are virtual reality headsets exciting yet? Do you follow the virtual reality industry? Does virtual reality have its killer app yet?