Photo by Alex Thebe
This story appeared in the February issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
Virtual reality has been in the realm of science fiction for decades, but in the last year or so, that's changed. Right this second, you can buy a headset that makes VR part of your living room. Whether you want to fly a spaceship to another planet, run through a haunted mansion, or simply watch a movie in your own private theater, VR is within reach for the average person.
The biggest problem is choosing which headset to buy. Sony, HTC, and Oculus have all released headsets with their own strengths, weaknesses, and differences in price. That last one is a big one, too. Fortunately, they're all pretty good. (If you're interested in VR movies, though, the nicer-looking headsets on PC are your best bet.)
The fastest, easiest, and cheapest way to jump into VR is Sony's PlayStation VR setup ($400), which requires a PlayStation 4 ($300) or a PlayStation 4 Pro ($400).
That being said, pricing on PS VR gets complicated. If you don't own a PlayStation Camera, required to use the headset, that's another $60. And if you want to play with motion controls, rather than the standard controller, it'll set you back another $100. It is worth paying the extra money for them, as motion controls are where VR games really shine. Save a few bucks and buy them used.
Once you have everything, PS VR is the easiest to get up and running—it took me ten minutes to start playing—and of the three, it's the most comfortable to wear. When you're playing games for several hours at a time, that's huge. PS VR also makes adjusting the headset—an annoying problem with the VIVE headset—simple.
Technically speaking, though, PS VR is the weakest of the three. There's a reason it's the cheapest. Those sensitive to motion sickness are more likely to run into problems with PS VR, and the PlayStation Camera can be extremely sensitive, requiring constant tweaking to make sure it functions properly.
Those seeking the most advanced VR options will have to invest in a PC with a powerful graphics card that'll cost you several hundred dollars on its own. It's a far pricier affair, but the results are the most thrilling VR experiences. If you already own a PC, HTC and Oculus have tools on their websites to let you know if your machine is capable of running VR games, and there are third-party companies that offer the option to purchase VR-ready machines, like the Alienware Aurora, that start at $800 but can cost more if you want something more powerful. Fair warning, though: You can build a computer for cheaper.
HTC's VIVE headset, made in collaboration with Half-Life developer Valve Software, is the most ambitious of the three. That ambition comes at a hefty price ($800), but that's because it's bundled with two motion controllers and two advanced tracking cameras. The cameras allow you to do more than look around a virtual world, however—you can walk around it, too. The fi rst time I dodged a bullet by literally throwing myself across the room is a moment I'll not soon forget. Not every setup will make this possible, but if you have the space, it's the best way to experience VR. There's a reason I converted a room in my house into a VR space.
Oculus Rift, created by the Facebook-owned company responsible for kicking off the modern VR craze, is a slightly cheaper proposition at $600, but if you want the Oculus Touch motion controls—and you do, trust me—that's another $200. The difference between VIVE and Oculus are subtle but important. The screen inside Oculus Rift looks slightly better than VIVE (making it your best bet for movie viewing), the Oculus Touch controllers feel more natural, and it's a more comfortable headset. After many hours with VIVE, I still can't get it to stay properly on my head for great lengths of time, and it's a pain to adjust. Oculus Rift, like PlayStation VR, makes the process easy.
One advantage Oculus Rift and VIVE have is access to all the experimental software released on the PC by independent creators. There's a lot of weird (and free) stuff—like exploring the world via Google Earth, or Skreleton's Hotdog Kitchen, where you build hotdogs, slap them into a crossbow, and shoot them into a skeleton's mouth—that'll likely never become available for PlayStation VR. Plus, whenever PlayStation 5 comes out, who knows if your headset will be supported? On the PC, there's a better guarantee it'll work for years. One argument for PlayStation VR, though, is the exclusive content Sony's locked up; games like Resident Evil 7 and Batman: Arkham VR won't be on the PC for at least a year.
In the end, you can't really go wrong with PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, or VIVE; they're all solid. If you're paralyzed by choice and need to pick one, go with Oculus Rift. Just know VR is a new technology, which means models with more features—right now, all the headsets are overflowing with wires for you to trip over, making wireless a welcome, natural addition—are surely coming soon. For now, let's focus on what we know: VR is here, and it's awesome.