As discussed earlier, there are loads of terms floating around in the world of VR. But it’s not just things on the spectrum between AR and VR. There are also various types of experiences within just VR.
Rather than try to cover every possible variant here, I’ll talk to the types I’ve experienced personally, and as a result what I think are the important components that make for good VR.
I’ve used quite a range now, from 3 degrees of freedom (3DOF) Google Cardboard, right up to a high immersion 6 degrees of freedom (6DOF) HTC Vive setups. Here’s an overview of what I’ve used so far:
I’ve got what can only be described as a growing collection of Google Cardboard headsets. The more you get involved/exposed to the VR community and events it seems sort of inevitable that you’ll pick up a few along the way. This is part of what makes Cardboard so great. It’s highly accessible. If you’ve got a modern iOS or Android-based phone you’ve got 99% of what you need to get going. Cardboard headsets range in sophistication and price, from $15 bits of literal cardboard, to “fancier” setups that strap to your head with headphones for $50+.
Accessibility aside, the sorts of experiences you can do in a Google Cardboard really are a perfect entry into VR. It’s a fantastic way to take users to inaccessible locations and show them things. Examples include estate agents showing an out of town client through a property, or placing a marine biology student at the bottom of the sea. The biggest and most obvious shortcoming is the low levels of both emersion and interactivity available to carboard users. Effectively you can only interact via the users’ gaze or a single button interface on the headset itself. This sort of thing is fine for a certain segment of VR but obviously, you’re not exactly going to be entering the Matrix anytime soon.
One of the things that can’t go unsaid about Cardboard’s accessibility is how it lowers the barrier to entry to VR development. As I said in my hardware for VR post, you can get into VR on a very low budget with cardboard as a target device, and that’s a big deal.
If you’re interested in giving Cardboard a go, take a look at Google’s Cardboard site.
Gear VR (3DOF + 3DOF controller)
The Gear VR is a fascinating step up from Cardboard. In many ways, it’s a very sensible direction to take VR. At around $100 USD, plus the cost of a compatible Samsung phone, the cost is more accessible than a full emersion setup. Obviously, a phone strapped to your head is only going to take you so far visually. You’re also only going to get a 3DOF (that’s pitch, roll, and yaw tracking of the users head) which limits the feeling of presence. However, the addition of a controller, even a simple 3DOF one, means far greater levels of interactivity. To my mind, having any control scheme that simulates a users hand greatly increases the value of the setup.
Having said all that, the Gear VR isn’t something I’d recommend unless you’re already a Samsung phone user. Its benefits are not worth the $1000 NZD investment over a cardboard setup. It’s also worth mentioning this segment of the marketing is increasingly competitive. Google have Daydream in this space. I haven’t used it personally but conceptually it looks quite similar. If you think a setup like this is something you’d like to explore you should consider both before making your decision. You should also be aware that Daydream looks to be releasing stand-alone headsets later this year that may be the most interesting take on this segment yet. Unless you’re in a mad rush for a VR setup I’d consider waiting until later in the year before buying.
HTC Vive (6DOF + 6DOF hand controllers)
I like to think of the HTC Vive as a window to the future rather than the revolution that some tout it to be. The experience itself is unmistakably amazing. The level of immersion is so high that I stopped thinking about controlling a computer simulation, and started just naturally interacting with it as if it was a real environment. It’s actually quite a strange thing to describe, but having used this setup dozens of times I’m convinced this as far more to do with your hands than it does your head.
The second you enter a VR environment, and you have some control of it via controls that closely approximates your hands, you stop thinking about the tools and just start being. Before you know it you are truly in VR. Based on the impact of hand controllers I’m a bit surprised more isn’t being done with cardboard headset combine with hand controllers, but then again there are likely significant technical challenges I’m not aware of.
Unsurprisingly the Vive is by far my favourite VR experience. However, the reason I say it’s a window to the future is the ticket price. These things cost a fortune. A Vive with hand controllers cost $799 USD. Which on its own is a big investment for most. Not inaccessible, but significant. The real kicker here is you need a high-end Mac or PC to connect the headset too. Taking that into account you can be looking at a $3000+ NZD machine to get started. Not exactly mainstream pricing.
It’s just a matter of time before these things transform into a more mainstream format. It’s quite likely the coming stand-alone headsets are the beginning of that. How much they cost and how good they are is yet to be seen, but I for one am excited at the possibilities.
The sooner more people have immersive VR experiences and reasonable consumer prices the faster this industry prices. With gateway drugs like Cardboard giving people their first taste for a low price, it’s sure to an explosive industry once the hardware catches up.