Cross Talk: Easy Guide to Choosing VR Options
Last week Sony finally came forth with the announcement of the release date and price of the Playstation VR (formerly Morpheus). Most of the important details are in place to make the “which VR option should you choose” article and predictably that’s just what most sites did. I did that six months ago after getting all that info at PAX Prime 2015, it’s right here. Here’s the problem: almost nothing I read is realistic. All of the articles break down the experience, technical specs, and personal opinion of the writer, but not the reality of the consumer – that’s us – actually buying anything. Why? Because if you work for a media outlet it will be in your office, you will be able to play it, and frankly most of games press staff will not be personally purchasing these devices. To be fair, my experience has proven that many of these staffers live in big cities with high cost of living and relatively low income. As a result, I figured I would break down the actual decision-making process of the upcoming VR, what you can expect, and why this decision is less in your control and more locked into your current hardware setup. If you’re not interested in VR, and many aren’t, that’s fine too. Skip this article and aside from specific games coverage and impressions once hardware releases on whatever some of us buy, there will be no further VR articles.
If you are still asking yourself, do I need VR? The answer is most likely “no.” This first run will be early adopters, which as we’ve seen in the past are the ones to get the hardware first at a much higher price. Also early adopters tend to not get the best hardware and a revision surfaces at a cheaper price within 24 months. In addition the games aren’t nearly as impressive – most of us refer to the games initially released as “launch titles” and it implies that these are the rough early stages of developing for new hardware. You only need VR if you want the new shiny first and to show it off to your friends. In the case of VR you may also be wondering what the experience I and others have described from firsthand accounts are referring to, well you’ll need to try it for yourself. A good basic way to do this is via Google Cardboard and chances are you’ll pay next to nothing for it and your phone is already prepared to support it. It’s an extremely passive experience but it’s a great sneak peek at what VR has to offer. The next step is Gear VR by Oculus, which is a $100 headset that only supports a handful of Samsung phones currently, but it gives you a bigger hint at what games and interactive experiences can be. It should be noted that neither is really the true VR experience, most of the things you’ll do are quite gimmicky, and you can expect to see all they have to offer in a few short days. This is why the following information pushes the additional things you’ll need to run proper VR, because otherwise you’re really just buying a super expensive version of the Gear VR. You will also want to buy where there’s a good return policy because VR brings up all kinds of things about your physical head you may have never been aware of like fogging the inside of the glasses, how big your cranial circumference is, and even how far apart your eyes are from one another. These all affect VR and your enjoyment of it.
True Deciding Factors
The truth is that the release of VR headsets is almost identical to consoles and hardware. What I mean is that you’ll have your fanboys – those that will fight vehemently that the device they purchased is the best – and all kinds of hardware breakdowns, which also doesn’t mean anything because rarely is the strongest hardware a console sales victor. The difference between VR and other consoles is that not everyone can get every headset, in fact whether or not you can support it may very well be the one you select. That means the games are of little importance to your decision despite them being the most important factor to your enjoyment. Price is most likely of little importance as well because you’ll be buying what you can support and if you can afford to support all solutions, well then you have quite a bit of expendable income and I don’t see the few hundred dollars separating each headset’s price being much of a factor. Tech specs also don’t matter for this same reason. Nope, the only thing that matters is simply whether or not you have something to support the headset.
So How Do I Know?
You probably already do, because you’ve probably had to pre-order (or fight to pre-order) the headset you can support. Just for argument’s sake, lets take a look at each headset, its cost, and the requirements.
Playstation VR – Release Date: October, 2016 – Price: $399.99 (Headset with converter box) or $499.99 (“Optional” Hardware) – Needs: Playstation 4, PS4 Camera, Move Controllers (2)
- Why You’ll Choose It: It’s probably going to sell the most because it has the largest penetration rate (owners ready to go). Currently Sony is reporting over 36 million worldwide, which is a much larger audience than those that own PCs that are ready to support Oculus or Vive out of the box. Playstation 4 is a console, which tends to be much more popular with consumer markets en mass as well because the hardware is fixed and games are plug-and-play. It’s also the cheapest, which won’t matter if you have a beefy PC that supports the other headsets, but nonetheless everyone will say the headset price is why they are buying it. That’s not the reason, it’s because they already have a PS4 ready to go or that buying a PS4 and PS VR combined is still cheaper than the lowest end PC needed to run Oculus or Vive. The excuses will be vast, the reason is simply because the whole package is cheap and easy.
- What You Won’t Hear: You’ll need to buy additional hardware or that handy complete bundle Sony is offering. It has been revealed that the head tracking is handled by the PS4 Camera and certain games/demos/experiences will require Move controllers (almost always 2) for interaction. This may not seem key, but it’s the whole reason for VR, especially the head tracking. Without head tracking, you’re buying a 3D TV that rests on your eyes and really doesn’t impress. Unless you are one of the 10 people that bought a PS4 camera and one of the 100 people that bought 2 Move controllers, you’re going to need this hardware. This means that if you own a PS4, you’re price is $500 for PS VR, and if you don’t the complete price is $850 (although expect a bundle around the holidays with everything). Another thing you won’t hear about is the cost of games. PS VR comes with a demo disc that will last you, oh, an afternoon. After that, you’ll need games to play. Just like consoles, expect the small experiences around $20 and the main experiences around $60, so it’s safe to say you’ll want to set aside about $100-$150 for a good handful of launch games. I’m also getting the run around from developers when I ask if games like Battlefront VR will be free if you own Battlefront or even Sony titles like Drive Club VR if you own Drive Club. This means probably not. If you’re paying attention, that means your price will be more like $600 for a complete setup with games or perhaps $900-$1000 if you don’t own a PS4.
- What You Will Want To Ignore: Hardware discussions. Yes, it’s at a lower resolution than Oculus or Vive, but not by much and having looked through the goggles it’s not very noticeable. Furthermore, you won’t be lining up all 3 headsets at home and looking at them, you’ll only know your own experience. Also the PS4 already has games on it that look better elsewhere, you shouldn’t care if that’s the decision you make. Games will be another. Either the games will come to the PS VR or they won’t, this isn’t going to matter much in the long run. Just like the world of consoles today, you’ll look at what releases on your hardware and pick what you want to play out of those games. I still go back to the fact that it won’t be a “decision” as much as it’s the only way to get VR running that you can handle right now, so who cares what the others have? For once enjoy what you have and stop worrying about what the others have.
Oculus Rift – Release Date: 03/28/2016 (Orders placed now ship in July, 2016) – Price: $599.99 (Headset, cords, Xbox One Controller) – Needs: PC with an Intel i5 4590 (Quad Core at 3.5 Ghz), Nvidia GTX 970/Radeon R9 290, 8GB RAM, 3x USB 3.0 ports open, 1x USB 2.0 port open, Windows 7 64-bit (Pre-made start at $999.99)
- Why You’ll Choose It: See those PC specs up there? Especially the requirements that need a $300+ graphics card and 3 USB 3.0 ports? If you have that and you don’t have a 15’x15′ room available in your house like the Vive requires, you’re getting Oculus because your computer supports it. This is also the safest of the 3 choices because with the investment already behind Oculus, it will be the last to give up. Sony can drop it just as it did 3D and motion controls (Move) and Valve can grow tired of its partnership with HTC, but Oculus needs VR to survive and it’s being funded by Facebook on the back end. This also means Oculus will have more uses than the other two, especially in the world of business, tech, and communication. Out of the box all of these headsets can technically support things like Skype VR, but in the end Oculus will make the deals and have the exclusive software for non-gaming uses. It also is releasing piece-meal with the “touch” controllers and room tracking cameras not even up for release yet. That tells me that there’s a good chance the consumer version of Oculus, which is at least three iterations in unlike the other headsets, is more likely to be around longer and support additional tech. The room tracking stuff is too new to predict on both a development and practicality level so Oculus is taking its time developing that. The same is true for touch controllers, which trust me added a whole new dimension, but the delay just means that Oculus doesn’t want to integrate those controls yet. I foresee developers programming for the other two with touch-like controllers will force Oculus to support touch faster. Oculus will be a slow burn, but it may also prove to be the best option in the future, however nothing is certain. Also keep in mind that gaming is not the primary focus of Oculus, unlike the Vive and PS VR.
- What You Won’t Hear: Kinda what I just said: Oculus is not focused solely on gaming. In addition the headset may very well update shortly and come out cheaper, better designed, or both within a couple of years. It also is the slowest to integrate the touch controls and room tracking, which can be both a good and a bad thing. It’s also going to go toe to toe with Valve’s partnership with HTC for the Vive, which means the exclusives and storefront may be much better on the Vive. Valve has yet to commit 100 percent to VR though, so don’t buy too much into it. Oculus also trumps PS VR (as does the Vive) by being on PC because that means third party software, homebrew, and other applications can be added thanks to the open system of the PC. PS VR is a closed system and won’t be running that Virtual Boy Emulator, porn (although that wasn’t impressive), and fun indie projects. I’m also mildly concerned that a handful of the Oculus launch titles are ports from the Gear VR, which means we’re going to get mobile games in our main stores (eh). PC does mean that the prices of games will generally be lower and always digital, which I view as definite pluses. Oculus is the safe VR decision for the PC user, but it will also be the most casual.
- What Won’t Matter: Games, again. Any speculative talk on the future of Oculus, the future of VR, and what could be made. None of it matters until it comes out. The Vive’s titles also won’t matter and as with the PS VR, visuals are nearly the same across the board. Another thing that doesn’t matter is this “play games you already own in VR” stuff I see with each headset. Sure, the XB1 games in a theater on your PC are probably the least interesting feature, but you’ll feel the same about non-VR games out of your PS4 and Steam library as well, trust me. Play games that are designed for the hardware, otherwise it all really falls apart. In short, games and how the Oculus compares to the other simply don’t matter if this is your only option.
HTC Vive – Release Date: 04/05/2016 (Orders now ship in May, 2016) – Price: $799.99 (Headset, cords, cameras, wand controllers) – Needs: PC with an Intel i5 4590 (Quad Core at 3.5 GHz)/AMD 8350 (Quad Core at 3.8 GHz), Nvidia GTX 970/Radeon R9 290, 4GB RAM, 1x USB 2.0 port open, Windows 7 64-bit (Pre-made start at $999.99)
- Why You’ll Choose It: At first glance the PC required seems nearly identical to the Oculus (save that hefty 3x 3.0 USB port requirement being gone), so the difference is whether you want to pay $200 extra for some cameras and wands, right? Wrong. You will need an unobstructed space of 15 feet by 15 feet to set up and navigate the HTC Vive. If you have that, this is why you are getting the Vive. There are literally no savings (and maybe more cost) associated with the Oculus over the Vive. Once you add touch controllers and tracking cameras you’ll be lucky to get the Oculus at $800. In addition, the Vive will offer the most comprehensive experience for VR yet with you able to navigate full spaces, walk around, and interact with items. Vive has the most impressive demos and will offer the most bang for your buck in the first installment of VR. Not only that, but it has Valve backing it, which means you’ll get some interesting exclusive games and Steam as your storefront. The Vive also has a front-facing camera so you can see the room around you without having to take the thing off and of course it can support simple items like controllers in addition to its own wand peripherals. This is the “ready for anything” VR setup: it will be ready for anything VR has currently been ready to throw at it and it will have the most interactive games at launch. Not only that, but this bundle gives you all the hardware you will seemingly ever need for the device.
- What You Won’t Hear About: Those long tendril cords that come out of the back, route themselves along your body, and then string across the floor before hooking into your PC. It seems odd to me that a device designed to navigate a large space of 15’x15′ also has a cord tracking behind you that will easily be tripped over or get hung up. It’s also really hard to put on and every demo I’ve ever done with the Vive required 1-2 people to hook me in and then watch me while I was playing. I won’t have a spotter with me when I use VR at home, it’s just not realistic. That means that until I try it in my room, playing around on a Vive doesn’t seem realistic because we won’t have a second person with us (no, my wife isn’t going to follow me around while I jack into the Vive). Also while it does support cool new technology and room tracking, few developers seem to be taking on large projects with it. We’ve seen in multi-platform environments that developers tend to create for the lowest common denominator, which means that since Oculus and PS VR doesn’t have room tracking yet there’s little reason to design around it. Sure, it may be integrated, but it’ll be a throw-in and not a design factor. Unless Valve wants to step up and reveal a whole bunch of games they are spearheading – which it very well could but has yet to do so – the cutting edge tech will be wasted in the interest of supporting more devices. The front facing camera is an ingenious idea except that it wouldn’t need to exist if you didn’t design your headset so heavily around moving a room with a cord on the floor. I also expect this device to be the quickest with a hardware update that removes the need for the hanging cords, so you’ll be buying a new one before long.
- What Won’t Matter: Pretty much anything else. If you have a room, the necessary PC, and some sort of solution to how to put on and navigate with it then the Vive will be your all-in-one solution. With luck Valve will establish exclusive software, strong third party support, and utilize the features to an immersive gaming experience. Then again, if not enough people pull the trigger and developers don’t design for it, HTC will quickly and easily abandon the headset without anyone stopping them, least of all Valve. This is truly the highest risk with the highest potential reward.
So there you have it, there’s your breakdown of each VR headset and what you should consider when buying it. Forget all the “wow” coverage, which I need to stress isn’t incorrect, just insignificant to your decision. As games come out reviews will trickle and people will be able to utilize those to properly pick the games to play – and with some degree of hope we may even get demos. It’s not that traditional games press coverage can’t properly look into this stuff, it’s just that traditional games press seems to be abandoning simple factors of the reality of buying hardware because the writers of these articles rarely have to do so. Before you go writing comments, please remember that when I say “what won’t matter” that’s not in reference to it not mattering to you or owners of the headsets, it won’t matter to making the decision to purchase. It’s almost time for VR and I’m cautiously optimistic, but like it or not this is not the lock stock tech that everyone’s dying to have. I’ll be getting in at the ground floor but I honestly have zero expectations and even though I’ve used all of the headsets, I can’t possibly predict what the future of VR is going to be.