On average most people will experience their first Virtual Reality content online via a 2D 360 video or image on a mobile phone or computer. One of the advantages to the format is that it can be viewed by anyone without a need for a virtual reality headset. This first impression tends to stick with people and they get the idea that VR content is video that doesn’t look much different than a normal video. For 360 videos on a computer you can interact with the video by dragging the video around with your mouse to see what’s going on above, below and around you. With a smart phone you can also drag around with your finger to see what is going on around you and in most cases pan and tilt your camera around to get sort of a magic window effect seeing the video in the direction your phone is pointing. However, they miss out on the immersion part of the experience by using a VR headset to allow for natural head movements and the 3D depth that can be seen in a headset.
There are other types of Virtual Reality content that can be experienced without any VR gear at all, but still provides a method of experiencing the benefits of VR. Virtual Worlds, a computer simulated environment, which is a world populated by avatar (a graphical icon or figure representing a person) versions of their users that you can explore or interact with. Most of the current virtual worlds like Sansar, VRChat, AltSpaceVR and High Fidelity all have a Desktop Mode where you can experience their content with your regular keyboard and mouse to make it easy for anyone to enjoy some of the immersive benefits of VR. Many other VR games and experiences have a desktop mode as well. However, viewing this kind of content sitting on one side of a flat screen isn’t the same as experiencing it in virtual reality and for that you are going to need Virtual Reality gear.
Let’s take a moment to define virtual reality gear. Generally, it does a minimum of 3 things. First, it provides a pair of displays with the optics to focus them correctly so that a small split screen or pair of screens up close take up most of your field of vision and enable you to see stereo 3D images or video. Second, three degrees of freedom (3DoF) rotational headtracking allows the system to recognize where and how your head is oriented and can update the display accordingly. Third, a pair of stereo headphones to enable spatialized audio (full sphere surround-sound that uses the head tracking to mimic the way we hear sounds in real life). These are the basics. Additional features can be found as well, including headsets that included controllers, more advanced hand position tracking controllers, six degrees of freedom head tracking up to full walk around in VR room scale tracking. In 2018 there are 4 different types of VR equipment that can be used to view content: basic smartphone, advanced smartphone, tethered desktop/laptop VR headset and an all in one VR headset (Oculus Go for example).
The basic smartphone can be used as a VR viewing device when used with a foldable cardboard headset (Google Cardboard for example), plastic VR cases and clip on foldable lenses. These all satisfy the basic requirement of holding a pair of lenses the correct distance from your smartphone screen and provides the ability for each eye to see a unique image which provides the 3D effect. Your smartphone’s internal parts provide the head tracking and split screen viewing so that stereo 3D images can be seen. Built in or external headphones enable the spatialized audio. The prime advantage to the Basic Smartphone is the low price and easy access to devices. Which is why it is usually one of the first VR viewing devices people use and fairly popular.
VR headsets made of cardboard, like the Google Cardboard, can be purchase for less than $5 or given away free as part of product promotions. More durable plastic models are generally less than $20, but can be more expensive if they include things like advanced optics, built-in headphones or wireless controllers. Both versions require a smartphone to provide the screen and motion sensing. However, you can use a basic smartphone and get good results. Minimum requirements for a basic mobile phone is Android version 4.1 OS or higher and for an iPhone, version 8.0 OS or higher). If you have an old phone sitting around it may be perfectly fine to use in one of these headsets. However, there are a few downsides to be aware of when using a basic smartphone with a cardboard or plastic VR viewer. First, both the quality of the headsets and software at this level is inconsistent. There are dozens of these kinds of headsets available online and while many of them are fine there are some junk headsets out there too. Second, not all headsets will fit all mobile phones. You can avoid these issues by reading reviews carefully, asking questions of the sellers, and make sure your phone will fit.
Moving one level up in the VR viewing experience is the advanced smartphone which can be used with the Samsung/Oculus Gear VR and Google Daydream View. These VR viewers only work with a specific line of phones. They are a good option if you already own one of the compatible phones. The compatible phones were designed with VR in mind so they will usually give you a better overall experience. Also, the Samsung and Google viewers have a VR app store built specifically for that headset, so it is a lot easier to find good experiences and games. For the Gear VR the compatible phones include the Samsung galaxy line including the Note 4, Note 5 and S6 - S9 models.
For the older phones you will need to look for one of the older versions of Gear VR (officially there have been 6 versions) that will work with your phone. Same situation for the Daydream View which was originally designed to work with Google’s Pixel line of phones. It now supports several other brands of phones, aside from the Google Pixel line. Each include one three degree of freedom (3DoF) rotationally tracked controller. Both will give you a similar level VR experience with the GearVR having more apps to choose from and the Daydream View being a more comfortable headset overall.
The next level of VR experience is the tethered desktop/laptop VR headsets that use the power of a high-end computer to drive a superior VR experience. Tethered simply means that it isn’t wireless, and needs a computer to function. The main products to consider are the Oculus Rift ($399), HTC VIVE ($499) VIVE pro ($1099 for the starter kit, $799 for the headset only) and the Microsoft Mixed Reality line of headsets that are manufactured by HP, Lenovo, Dell, Acer and Samsung ($399-499). You’ll need a computer and it does have some basic requirements that you should look for. Compatible “VR Ready” computers start at around $800 for desktop and $1000 for laptops. The “VR Ready” term is used and makes it easier to track down computers that can support a VR tethered headset. This is not the cheap option, but it does provide one of the best experiences.
The improvement in experience for the Oculus and VIVE headsets comes from the external sensors that are used to track your movements and provide 6 degree of freedom (6DoF) room scale tracking with dual 6 degree of freedom (6DoF) controllers. Microsoft Mixed Reality line of headsets provide the same 6 DoF but use a pair of cameras on the front to do “inside out” tracking. Aside from a few brand exclusives they all have access to the same kinds of experiences and games.
Lastly, there are the All-in-one headsets, like the Oculus Go, Lenovo Mirage Solo and the HTC VIVE focus. (I haven’t personally tried the HTC VIVE focus as it’s not officially available in America, so I’m not going to cover it). All-in-one means that you don’t need a mobile phone nor a “VR Ready” computer. Everything you need is in the headset and it is wireless, making it easy to move around. This is the simplest way to get into immersive VR for the first time and the fastest way to get into VR.
[Image: Oculus Go VR headset. Source: Oculus]
The Oculus Go ($199) is a great starting point to get an immersive VR experience. It is very similar to the Samsung Gear VR as far as functionality goes, with 3 degrees of freedom (3DoF) headtracking and controller, in headset store, and available apps. The same can be said of the Mirage Solo ($399) and its similar compatibility with the Daydream View, with the Solo having more advanced 6 degree of freedom (6DoF) headtracking but 3DoF on the controller.
As far as recommendations go it all depends on your budget. If you have the budget, consider one of the VIVE headsets, the laser-based tracking is superior to the optical tracking of the others. If you have a compatible phone a Gear VR or Daydream are good solid options. If you don’t have a compatible phone, and can afford $199, get the Oculus Go… it’s my favorite headset after the VIVE and quickest to put on and get into VR. No budget? A basic smartphone is better than nothing, just remember that you will still need an Android version 4.1+ or iPhone version 8.0+, the newer the phone the better.
In part three of “An absolute beginners guide…”, we will introduce you to some of the ways to create your own Virtual Reality content from 360/VR Video, Virtual Worlds and standalone experiences and games. Stay tuned!