What is VR?
Once the domain of cheesy cyberpunk movies like Johnny Mnemonic and gimmicks from the nineties (anyone remember the Virtual Boy?), Virtual Reality (VR) headsets used to be one of those futuristic technologies that never quite came true, like jetpacks, hoverboards, and shoe-laces that tie themselves.
But now - thanks to advances in gyroscopic tracking, high-definition screens and motion controls - the technology has finally caught up with the vision and the Virtual Reality headset revolution is here to stay.
As with any cutting-edge technology, you’ll no doubt have plenty of questions: What can I use VR for? Which VR headset should I buy? What accessories do I need? In this buyer’s guide we’ll give you an introduction to the world of VR. You’ll learn everything you need to know about how the technology works, what you can use it for, a few suggestions for the best VR headsets you can get for your money and finally what are the must have accessories for those VR headsets. So, wire up, plug in and get ready to immerse yourself in the wild world of VR!
Why you’ll love VR
In one word: immersion. We’ve all dreamed of actually entering our favourite fictional worlds, or experiencing another part of the world without having to pay the price of transport and accommodation. With a VR Headset, you can get one step closer to that dream.
VR Headsets combine two different technologies to convince you you're somewhere you're not. The first is a high-definition display that projects images through a pair of lenses. The lenses change the focus in a tiny way for each eye, which creates an effect called 'stereoscopy' causing 2D images to appear 3D.
The second piece of the VR puzzle is a device called an 'Inertial Measurement Unit'. This fancy-sounding gizmo uses sensors to track your head movements and adjust the picture in real time. This allows you to experience a full 360° virtual space. If you look over your shoulder when wearing a VR headset, you’ll see a completely different picture, just like you do in real life.
With a close-up, first-person perspective and the ability to see whatever you’re looking at from a different angle by simply tilting your head, with a VR headset you can have a truly jaw-dropping experience!
VR Headset Uses
The most popular use for a VR Headset is as a gaming peripheral. Perfect for role-playing games, survival horror and any other genre that demands atmosphere, these captivating devices allow you to be fully drawn into your video game world.
The advantages to using a VR headset aren’t limited to graphics: since VR headsets were first released developers have been hard at work creating new and innovative control schemes and mechanics that change up existing games and create entirely new ways to play.
While most VR Headsets are explicitly tailored towards video games, you’d be mistaken if you thought that gaming was all VR had to offer you.
VR Headsets can be used to watch movies without the distraction of the outside world getting in. Some video platforms, like Youtube or Hulu, are also adding content specially for VR Headsets. With a VR music video you can experience the magic of being in a concert from the comfort of your own home, or you can catch jokes hidden behind you in a sketch with 360º video.
VR Headsets can help you explore the real world as well. High street brands are already experimenting with virtual reality versions of their stores that allow customers to browse their shelves and see their stock without ever leaving their sofa.
Virtual tourism is another exciting use for your VR headset. Hotel chain Marriott is starting to offer its customers ‘virtual postcards’ that use VR headsets to show the personal stories of travellers and teleport their guests to new locations around the globe, from the bustling streets of Beijing to the quiet serenity of the Andes Mountains in Chile. VR headsets can even offer you sensations that are literally out of this world: NASA have designed their own VR adventures that give you virtual tours of the International Space Station and even other planets!
A VR Headset can also be used for less intense, more introspective experiences and learning opportunities. For example, many VR headsets offer guided meditation apps that give you a peaceful, calming virtual environment to collect your thoughts and calm your emotions. There are also a growing number of educational apps for VR headsets as well that will teach you about subjects as diverse as geography, chemistry, psychology and anatomy in a new, totally engrossing way.
And remember, these are only the applications for VR headsets available right now. As developers and innovators become better acquainted with the technology, you’ll soon see all sorts of weird and wonderful ways to use these gadgets!
Is my PC VR ready?
Technically, almost any Windows PCs can run a VR headset. Everything you need to get the VR headset set up and working, including wires, connectors, sensors and software, all come with the VR Headset itself.
However, this is only theoretical. In the real world, VR Headsets are resource hogs: you're not going to run the latest VR headsets from a cheap, seven year old laptop; you’re going to need a fairly modern PC instead.
The most system-intense VR headset in this buyer's guide is the Oculus Rift S. Oculus have provided a list of computer parts that they recommend:
Video Card: NVIDIA GTX 1060 / AMD Radeon RX 480 or greater
CPU: Intel i5-4590 / AMD Ryzen 5 1500X or greater
Memory: 8GB RAM or greater
As its hardware is older, the HTC VIVE is less demanding on your PCs system. HTC recommends only 4GB of RAM for their VR headset, although their recommendations for both video card and processor are the same as the Oculus Rift S.
While these are recommended specifications, your performance might be affected by other software you are running. This is particularly important if you want to use your VR headset for gaming, as VR games are also system intensive. If this is the case, you should think about investing in more powerful hardware.
If you're looking to maximise your performance, we recommend the following:
Video Card: Nvidia GeForce GTX1650 ti/ATI Raedeon RX 570
CPU: intel i7 7700k/ AMD Ryzen 7 1700X
Memory: 12GB RAM or greater
We also recommend upgrading your PCs hard drive to a Solid State Drive (SSD). SSDs can load the installation files of your VR Headset software faster than a traditional hard drive, so you should see a smoother experience and faster load times.
Degrees of Freedom
Degrees of freedom might sound like the name of a punk band, but it's actually a vital piece of VR headset jargon. Degrees of Freedom refers to how many axes the VR headset can measure.
Some VR headsets use three degrees of freedom. That means they measure the rotational axes of your head: its pitch, yaw and roll. This gives you full control over your field of vision, but you won't be able to move back and forth.
More advanced headsets feature six degrees of freedom, which means any movement you make in the real world will be reflected in virtual reality.
As this important metric might make the difference between which VR headset you pick up, we've mentioned it in the description of each headset.
Now let's take a look at some of the VR Headsets you can lose yourself in!
Key features: Sensitive Insight tracking, completely wireless
Cons: It's not the most comfortable headset.
Degrees of freedom: 6
Oculus were the company that kick-started the new wave of VR headsets in 2012 and they’ve been leading the field ever since. The Oculus Quest is one of the best VR headsets you can get.
The biggest selling point of the Oculus Quest is its Insight tracking. This high-tech process uses computer vision algorithms and built-in sensors to calibrate the Oculus Quest to your surroundings. It means that this VR headset is totally wireless.
During the setup process you’ll create a safe zone that you can roam freely in. If the Oculus Quest detects that you’re close to leaving the zone it’ll throw up a series of red lines to warn you, and if you do leave it, the headset will automatically switch its view to a front-facing camera so you can see any rapidly approaching walls!
The Oculus Quest isn’t just safe, it’s sensitive, too. The Insight tracking allows for more precise readings from the included hand controllers, giving you better control and reducing immersion-breaking bugs.
If there’s one issue with the Oculus Quest, it’s the device’s comfort factor. The Quest weighs almost half a kilo, which is quite heavy for something to be strapped to your face for hours at a time, and your forehead will feel it eventually.
Key Features: Top quality visuals, great ergonomics, Exclusive titles
Cons: Fairly cost prohibitive, requires a powerful computer to run
Degrees of Freedom: 6
The Oculus Rift S is the latest version of the sector defining Oculus Rift VR headset, improving on its predecessor in every respect.
The most powerful VR headset on this list, the Oculus Rift S has been upgraded with next-generation lenses and an increased display resolution. With its 1280 x 1440-pixel display, fine details stand out and text that would be illegible on other devices on this list is pin-sharp. You’ll truly believe what you’re seeing when you use the Oculus Rift S.
The Oculus Rift S has been equipped with a completely redesigned headband too, with a more ergonomic ‘halo’ fit that will stay attached to your head even when you’re darting your head back and forth in the middle of the game.
The increased power of the Oculus Rift S allows it to play a list of exclusive games as well. Explore space with Lone Echo or solve fiendish puzzles in the heart of a secret laboratory in The Assembly.
This high power comes at a steep price though. Not only is the Oculus Rift S fairly expensive, you’ll need a top-tier PC to get it running smoothly.
Key Features: Adjustable focal distance, low cost, light and easy to move
Cons: Limited features, can only be used with phones of a certain size.
Degrees of Freedom: 3
If there’s one thing you can say about VR headsets, it’s that they’re expensive. All of the other models in this buyer’s guide run into the triple figures. If a price tag that big is making you queasy, then there is a realistic budget option: The VR Box.
Rather than plugging into a computer, the VR Box has a tray that slides open for your smartphone. Once inside the VR Box, your phone is turned into a wireless VR headset which you can control with the phone’s internal gyroscopes and accelerometers.
The VR Box is more than just a holding cell for your phone, though. The spherical resin lenses makes sure every centimetre of your phone’s screen is visible. You can adjust both the focal length and the pupil distance of each lens independently, too, so you’re certain to see clearly.
All in all, though, the VR Box is far from the most feature rich of our VR Headsets. Processors or sensors built into the VR Box’s housing, you’re entirely reliant on your phone’s performance to run VR apps. You won’t be able to use any controls with the VR Box (by default, be sure to check out the Vizor Gaming Controller accessory for more information), so your experience will be limited to watching 360º videos and other VR visual content.
We should also point out that, while the VR Box is compatible with both iPhones and Android phones, only phones with screen sizes between 3.5” and 6” will fit in the holding tray. If you have an unusually large phone, you’ll have to look elsewhere in this buyer’s guide to get your VR thrills
Key features: Apple iMac support, integrated with Steam, relatively low price
Cons: Not the cutting-edge technology it once was
Degrees of Freedom: 6
The HTC VIVE was one of the first VR Headsets to be released. Although an older piece of equipment by the lightning-quick standards of the VR headset world, don’t count the HTC VIVE out yet. It’s still an excellent choice for PC gamers thanks to its 6 Degrees of Freedom and game library. And thanks to its age, you’ll pay less for this VR headset than some of the others in this guide.
A natural choice for PC gamers, the HTC has a massive range of VR apps thanks to its integration with the Steam store. You’ll see beloved PC games in a whole new way with the HTC VIVE.
As a Mac user, it can feel like you’re unfairly left out of the software scene compared to Windows users, but that’s not a problem you’ll have with the HTC VIVE. It boasts native iMac support, making it the best choice for Apple Heads everywhere.
Features: two-part adjustment process, play VR games on your favourite console, DualShock controller compatibility
Cons: Ties you into the PlayStation system, other peripherals may be required
Degrees of Freedom: 3
If you prefer consoles to computers, then your best bet for a VR headset is the Sony PlayStation VR. This brightly coloured Sony peripheral lets you play VR games on your favourite console. You can enjoy your whole collection of PlayStation games with a new, added immersion as well as play new VR-exclusive titles.
If you’ve had a look at the trackpad controllers of other VR headsets and thought that they looked annoying to use, you’re in luck. The Sony PlayStation VR is fully compatible with Sony’s brilliant DualShock controller, so you’re guaranteed to play those VR games in a comfortable way.
Another nice bonus that comes with the Sony PlayStation VR is its two-part adjustment process. The display box and the headband are separate from one another, letting you adjust them both one at a time until you’ve got the perfect fit.
On the other hand, if you haven’t got a PlayStation 4, this VR headset will be a very expensive paperweight until you buy the console. You’ll also need a PlayStation Camera and a move motion controller if you don’t already have one. Bundles are available, but it would have been nice if the Sony PlayStation VR came with them as standard.
Which VR Accessories to Choose?
Many manufacturers and third-party developers have released accessories for connected VR headsets that make these great gadgets even better! These VR accessories can range from small extras, like protective cases and charging stations, to massive changes, like a fully reworked audio setup. There are loads to choose from, so we’ve provided a few examples of our favourite VR accessories for some of the VR headsets we’ve discussed in this guide.
Compatible VR headset: HTC VIVE
Key features: More secure than regular headband, integrated headphones, more comfortable fit
Cons: Quite Expensive
The HTC VIVE is already a great VR headset, the VIVE Deluxe Audio Strap just makes it that much better!
The VIVE Deluxe Audio Strap replaces the HTC VIVE’s elasticated headband with a moulded plastic one. Rather than stretching around the back of your head, the VIVE Deluxe Audio Strap surrounds the back of your head and sits on top of it. This gives you a more secure platform for HTC VIVE and prevents the VR headset slipping due to its weight. The VIVE Deluxe Audio Strap is fully adjustable too, letting you find the perfect fit and the extra padding means you can use your HTC VIVE for hours without the slightest discomfort.
The VIVE Deluxe Audio Strap includes a pair of high-quality headphones as well. The headphones have a slim profile that won’t interfere with the positioning of your HTC VIVE the way a regularly sized pair of headphones would. These headphones have a well-balanced sound with responsive bass and dynamic treble. Whether you’re jamming out to a 360º music video or straining your ears for distant gunfire in a video game, they’ll serve you well. The headphone cable is wired directly into the body of the VIVE Deluxe Audio Strap, so there’s no dangling cable for you to tangle your hands in at an inopportune time.
The only complaint we have with the HTC VIVE Deluxe Audio Strap is that its price is quite steep. You’ll have to decide if the extra comfort and audio fidelity is worth the price tag.
Vizor Gaming Controller
Compatible VR headsets: VR Box
Key Features: Control mobile games without touching the screen, comfortable design, ‘mouse mode’
Cons: Problematic button placement
One disadvantage with using the VR Box and other mobile phone VR headsets that we've already mentioned is your limited ability to control apps. Well, you won't have to worry about that problem with the Vizor Gaming controller! This inexpensive remote control connects to your phone via bluetooth for a truly wireless experience. You can pair it with both Android and iOS devices, just flick between the handy switch on the controller's left side.
The Vizor Gaming Controller has a small thumbstick and four buttons which you can use to control your game and should be familiar to anyone who's used to playing with a traditional video game controller.
You can also use this nifty VR accessory to browse through apps, settings and even your messages with the 'mouse mode'. This feature brings up a cursor on your screen that you can move with the thumb stick, just like the mouse on your PC.
The Vizor Gaming controller fits well in your hand, and it's ergonomic design is comfortable for long sessions, but the positioning of some of the buttons means that you'll have to remove your thumb from the joystick in order to hit them, so you'll have to work hard to play games that require you to do multiple things at once.
VRCover Hygiene Covers
VR Headsets are brilliant, but they're not the cleanest of gadgets. With them pressed so close to your face, sweat is bound to form on the foam padding. Over time this sweat is going to cause this padding to smell and discolour. Because of its absorbent nature foam isn't very easy to clean. Not only is this bacterial build up a bit gross, it's a potential health hazard if you're sharing your VR headset with friends. So you'll be glad to know you can keep your headset clean with VRCover's range of protective covers.
VRCover specialise in hygienic solutions for VR Headsets. They make covers for the HTC VIVE, every Oculus headset and other leading PC VR Headsets.
Depending on the model of VR headset you have, the hygiene covers are either made from medical grade silicone or moisture absorbent cotton. The silicone covers are hypoallergenic and easy to wipe down with antibacterial wipes or microfibre cloths; the cotton covers can be thoroughly cleaned in a washing machine - brilliant!
Installing a VRCover hygiene cover is easy: carefully remove the foam cover of your VR headset, slip the cover over it and then reattach the foam to your headset.
The only downside to these convenient, sanitary products is that VRCover don't make ones for the Playstation VR or VRBox headsets. You'll just have to work extra hard to keep those headsets clean!
TPCast Wireless Adapter
Compatible VR headset: HTC VIVE
Key features: Eliminates wires, over seven hours of charge, good signal strength
Cons: Not compatible with the Oculus Rift S, complicated set up
The HTC Vive comes with a plethora of wires. Keeping them strewn around your room is just an accident waiting to happen, but you can eliminate them entirely with the TPCast Wireless Adapter. This device is made from four components: a modem, wireless sensor, headset adapter and a battery pack. Your first time setting up the TPCast will be a bit of a trial and error process, but once you have everything calibrated correctly, you can enjoy complete wireless freedom with your HTC VIVE. This accessory’s battery life is important - you don’t want it dying in the middle of a competitive match! So you’ll be relieved to hear that the TPCast can keep going for seven continuous hours of playtime on a full battery.
Unfortunately, the HTC VIVE is the only VR headset in this buyer’s guide that the TPCast Wireless Adapter still supports. You can use it with the original version of the Oculus Rift, but it cannot stand up to the higher resolution demands of the Oculus Rift S. If you want to enjoy the most advanced VR experience to date without worrying about wires then you’ll have to look to the next entry in our list of VR accessories.
Compatible VR headset: HTC VIVE, PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift S
Key features: Retractable elastic cord, secure cable management
Cons: A bit of an eyesore, can’t be easily moved between rooms
Wireless connectivity is great, but if you’ve not got a compatible headset you’re stuck with your wires, so why not hang them from your ceiling? The Kiwi Designs VR Headset Cable Management uses a simple set of pulleys attached to elasticated string to suspend your cables far above head height.
When you move about the string extends to follow your movements, allowing you free reign of your VR space. When you’re finished playing with your headset the cord will automatically retract back into the pulley, drawing the cables back to their original position. Thick rubber bands and carabiner-style hooks keep the cables from getting loose.
The ceiling hooks are attached with self-adhesive, so there’s no long-term damage to your ceiling. The self-adhesive is very strong, which on the one had is brilliant - you certainly don’t want any cables falling on your head - but on the other once you’ve attached them it’s not a quick process to take them off again, making it suitable for use in one room only.
Compatible VR headset: Sony PlayStation VR
Key Features: Greater accuracy, more immersion, includes analogue controls.
Cons: You’ll look a bit silly
If you’re a big fan of first-person shooters, then the PlayStation VR Aim Controller is a must-have. This bonus peripheral for the Sony PlayStation VR gives you the ability to aim with a “real” gun.
With precision motion tracking at its tip, you can be sure you’ll hit your target. You also use the built-in trigger to fire the PlayStation VR Aim Controller. Not only does this give you a better sense of immersion, it also makes firing faster and easier.
The PlayStation VR also has an analogue stick, face buttons and other controls built into the grip, so you can dodge enemy fire as you lay down your own.
Let’s be honest, though: it’s not the most dignified of the VR accessories in this guide. You might want to draw the curtains before you whip out the PlayStation VR Aim Controller!
Woojer Pro Haptic Vest
Compatible VR headset: All models
Key Features: simulates physical feedback with vibration, compatible with VR and non-VR experiences
Cons: Extremely expensive
VR Headsets can't quite suck you completely into their world, but you'll get a little bit closer with the Woojer Pro Haptic Vest. The Woojer vest uses unique vibration devices taticaly positioned in eight areas around the vest to simulate the physical sensations you would really feel if what you were seeing in your VR headset was really happening. Experience the impact of a bullet as it hits your character’s arm or feel the rumble of a volcano erupting deep in your chest. Wearing a Woojer Pro Haptic Vest truly is an incredibly immersive experience.
Woojer advertises that their haptic vest is compatible with all major VR systems. Not only will this accessory work with VR experiences, it will also work with standard two-dimensional entertainment as well. The vest connects with your game console or phone using a bluetooth signal or an ordinary 3.5mm cable. The Woojer Vest works by interpreting 7.1 surround sound audio signals. Provided the audio track supports surround sound, can watch movies or listen to music and still receive haptic feedback.
So what's the catch? The Woojer Pro Vest is very expensive. In fact it's so expensive that you'll be paying for the haptic vest than you would for the VR Headset itself! For such a unique experience you might think that it’s worth the price, though!