What are they and how do they differ?
Virtual Reality(VR) is a whole new spectrum of technology which enables one to do things in the virtual world by wearing unfit-for-outdoors headsets on the head with tiny displays inside them. Virtual Reality is a relatively new paradigm but it is fast gaining popularity as almost all of the major tech players seem to have taken an interest in it. Virtual Reality takes control of your view and your eyes only see what is shown on the screens. That is where Augmented Reality differs.
Augmented Reality(AR), like the term suggests, augments to one’s reality by, mostly, using transparent displays or in some cases, pass-through cameras with the same screens as VR. Augmented Reality headsets allow you to interact with your everyday surroundings and do cool stuff in mid-air. One can draw, paint, create, destroy and watch things floating in the room or on its walls. You can see what a certain object would look like if it were present on your table right now.
While VR kick-started with the Kickstarter campaign of Oculus Rift few years ago, several companies jumped in and took it forward at an exponential pace.
VR and AR headsets are mainly of two types i.e. Tethered and Untethered. The tethered ones are headsets with displays and sensors and are fed their data through tethers/wires from a High-End Performance PC. Untethered ones, on the other hand, are headsets with just lenses (generally but not always) and use your mobile phone for display, sensors, processing and everything else. Untethered or mobile headsets, in short, are just shells with lenses that mount on your head.
Now here is a peek into the major VR/AR headsets available right now. There are numerous players, but here are the more prominent ones based on price ranges, in ascending order: –
Cheap to Mid-Range
Google cardboard is a cheap shell(headset) made out of cardboard. It has two polished lenses and a slot for sliding your phone in. The cardboard is cheap but fully functional. You cannot play any high-resolution games on it soon as it uses the displays of your phone and its processing power for generating the graphic required. For now, users can download the cardboard app in order to watch YouTube videos, concerts, play immersive arcade games, ride rollercoasters etc. Cardboard is a good experience and a good starting point if they are new to VR.
Samsung Gear VR
Samsung’s Gear VR is another VR headset which relies on [Samsung’s] mobile phones for their processing. While cardboard is just a quirky smartphone case, Gear VR packs additional sensors for spatial accuracy and better head-tracking. It also boasts head-mounted touch controls and support for Bluetooth controllers. The experience is better because of the new AMOLED displays stoked in the latest Samsung phones which allow for better visuals along with awesome pixel density. The software is from Oculus and has a good library of VR games and apps available.
Microsoft came out with the HoloLens a year ago and surprised everyone with its well-polished headset which combines Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality. The headset is not ready for consumer use and is under development but it is surprisingly well -built as a developer device.
Unlike other high-end VR headsets, HoloLens’s is untethered or in other words, it does not need any wires. This is due to its unknown custom CPU and GPU and a battery that lasts 3 hours. The displays are fully transparent until there is something to see. These displays add to one’s vision rather than replace it. User reviews suggest that the experience is close to Minority Reports level immersion and the head-tracking is the best in VR. Learning curve includes learning hand gestures to control the device. The only drawback of the device is the narrow field of view which gives the feeling of a display being placed inside your regular glasses. The headset is overall a very good experience and runs on Windows 10.
Oculus gave birth to VR a few years ago and after many editions, it is consumer ready. It has two OLED Displays. It also has a standalone positional sensor for proper head-tracking. The refresh rate is a solid 90 fps. Although you can see pixels, you tend to overlook this due to the immersion. One of the cons is that it doesn’t feel premium like the others. It is, however, patched-up by the inclusion of an Xbox controller in the box. There are touch controllers coming next year for better inputs. The current hand controllers are crafted with great detail and so much that you can do the most obscure things by lifting the right fingers. It has its own headsets for audio which is a polarizing choice by Oculus. It is great for developers as they know what they are working on but not so much for consumers.
While HTC is a new player, it has quickly overtaken the hype from Oculus Rift. Although it is being touted as the best headset, there are a few hurdles one needs to overcome before experiencing this awesome headset. It comes with its own display like every other headset in this category.
Setup requires some forethought for fixing the standalone motion detection sensors around the area you will be using. It also needs enough headroom to play around with. Unlike the HoloLens, Vive is tethered and fed from a High-End Performance PC. The experience that you get after this fiddling and setting-up is said to be “Life changing” as called by YouTube Tech Reviewers. The experience is beyond solid, extremely immersive and stands out because of the full-room tracking and the touch controller included with the package. It runs on Steam VR which can be controlled from the headset itself instead of fiddling with the computer. It also has a pass-through camera for seeing your surroundings so that you don’t have to take it off when you want to move around.
Overall, it is currently the best VR experience one can have.
And last but not least :
Sony PlayStation VR.
Unlike Vive and Rift which require heavy gaming beasts of a PC to power them, PlayStation VR uses PS4 for its data and streaming which makes it the most practical options of all. This also makes the setup easy.
Hardware includes fast, refreshing OLED displays and lights on the headset which are tracked by the PS4 camera. There isn’t anything very special about this headset as it is the middle-ground for experience, overall finish and practicality. It is a good choice if there is a PS4 lying around but one is still in development.