Hands On With the VR Headsets of 2016

From Google Cardboard to HTC Vive, the path to virtual reality is wide open.

By Jackie Dove

Whether or not it catches fire with the masses—and I bet it will soon—virtual reality (VR) is no longer about the future. It’s right in front of your face; in fact, it’s on your face. Once the preserve of gamers, geeks, teenagers, and folks in desperate need of a hobby, VR has morphed into serious photographic, journalistic, and cultural business.

It all started with the release of Google’s Cardboard VR viewer nearly two years ago: This tiny, cheap, recyclable device single-handedly spawned a popular new industry. First came YouTube’s VR support, followed by the New York Times’ mass Sunday subscriber distribution. Then a host of companies large and small — including Samsung, Microsoft, and Facebook — turned their attention to a new product category: head-mounted displays (HMD).

VR headsets and systems let you view and participate in everything from 360-degree spherical video and panoramas to Holodeck-style immersive virtual worlds, interactive games and experiences, and augmented reality.

Techwalla has ventured into some of VR’s faraway realms while strapped into various HMDs; we tried out seven of the newest available and upcoming headsets, and made it back in one piece. Here’s what we saw.

Cardboard Virtual Reality Viewer P2 By DODOcase

From among the many Google Cardboard clones designed to work with its large slate of compatible apps, I chose the 3.2-ounce DODOcase P2 viewer, which is made of high-quality corrugated cardboard and packed with large (37mm) bi-convex lenses. The unit features deep side shields that aid immersion, and it works with all current iPhone and Android smartphones. It’s good for travelers, too, as it collapses and then slides into a flat cardboard travel box.

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The VR experience generally calls for total immersion in a scene—and holding a box up to your face falls considerably short of that ideal—but on the positive side, simple contraptions like the DODOcase let you check out things quickly without having to strap in first. Its universal port for touchscreen capacity is straightforward: Just stick your thumb through the hole to tap on the screen when you want to switch apps or views. I found that it let me quickly survey news, documentary, and cinematic content from vendors like Vrse, Jaunt, Discovery VR, and Ryot. Their content is so compelling that I sometimes forgot how tired my hand was getting from holding up the viewer.

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DODOcase serves its fairly low-tech purpose nicely. But if you want to pursue in-depth VR action, you’ll need to choose one of the more durable and flexible viewers on the market.

Homido

The Homido is a solid entry in the VR arena. Made of lightweight black plastic, it comes with adjustable straps that slip around and over your head for a comfortable, secure fit. Everything about this headset feels substantial. A nonremovable foam cushion lines the part that comes into contact with your skin, protecting your face from irritation. This padding seems sturdy enough in early use, but it’s hard to say how durable it will be over time. A tight clip holds your phone firmly in place, and I was even able to keep my phone inside its own thin case; additional pads inside the clip holder prevent the glass from getting scratched. The unit ships with a lightweight protective foam carrying case for when you’re traveling or giving the headset the day off.

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The Homido supports phones as large as the iPhone 6 Plus and the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge Plus. You can’t wear eyeglasses while using it because there’s no space for them to fit behind the tight case. Instead, for viewers with suboptimal vision, the unit comes with three sets of lens holder cones that you can swap to compensate for vision impairments. I am extremely nearsighted, so I used the short cones. However, when I wore my contact lenses, I switched to the mid-length cones. Adjustable dials on either side of the headset and an interpupillary distance (IPD) wheel at the top help position the lenses to a comfortable fit so you can see details—and not see double—across the headset’s 100-degree field of view.

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The view for most apps was captivating, and I felt completely present in the environment. Sometimes the experience got a little eerie, especially when a narrator on the scene looked straight at me. Optics were better than I expected for some selections, but only so-so on others, depending on how the original video was shot. Games tended to be crisp and clear, while documentary video tended to look softer.

Any app that works with Google Cardboard will work with the Homido, and the company offers two free apps at the Apple and Google Play stores that point you toward a large selection of popular VR apps, games, 360-degree videos and pictures, and 3D videos.

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The $80 Homido’s only downside is that if you don’t want to watch a video in sequence, or if you want to quit out of one that you’ve been watching, there is sometimes no way to switch or adjust selections from inside the headset. Each app is built differently, and in some instances I had a degree of control via head movements; but with other apps, I had to remove the phone from the clip and manually choose another selection. The Jaunt documentary app has an elaborate navigation system that uses the phone’s gyroscope to let you navigate with head movements. A Bluetooth gamepad, which works only with Android phones, is also available for $15.

The Homido is a high-quality product that works as advertised. However, the headset needs more input controls to facilitate a more flexible and immersive experience.

Homido

by Homido
List $79

Merge VR

As purple as Barney, the dinosaur kiddy toy, the Merge VR is a super-comfy headset with adjustable straps that operates like a high-end Google Cardboard. Thanks to its hypoallergenic foam-based body, there’s little danger of scratching or irritating your face or of damaging the glass on your phone or your eyeglasses. Though the Merge VR has a clunkier, heavier feel than some of its sleeker competitors, its friendly look and feel make it inviting and accessible to newcomers.

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Merge VR goggles are compatible with almost any iOS or Android smartphone sold within the past two years. Two adjustable knobs—at the top and bottom of the headset—permit visual customization to accommodate your eyesight. Getting the view to look right took some effort, but that was likely as much an issue of the apps as of the headset. And because there’s no way to lock control into place, the view can vary.

One advantage that the Merge VR has over some rival headsets is that it allots plenty of built-in space for eyeglasses. Cooling vents keep the lenses from fogging up.

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A removable cutout piece at the front of the unit is designed to let you interact with Augmented Reality apps by exposing the smartphone camera, thereby enabling you to watch dinosaurs prance around your desk or sit on top of your cat’s head.

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The headset relies on the phone you’re using to handle the display and motion tracking, letting you follow items around with your head and eyes if you do not own a controller. However, Unlike some competing models, the Merge VR has a button controller built into the top of the headset that acts like a finger tap on your phone, making it much easier to control certain apps. Merge VR is also planning to add a separate controller, but that will come later this year. Until then, the same buttons that adjust your visuals also provide input to the phone screen to navigate and perform simple interactivity, if the app has touch capability.

The Merge VR’s advantages include flexibility in allowing ample space for eyeglasses and in building a touch input mechanism into the unit. Controls over visuals can shift over the course of a game or other interactive session, so you may have to readjust the top and bottom buttons to keep your vision sharp. Merge lists the goggles at its site for $99.

Merge VR

by Merge VR
List $99

Noon VR

If you’re looking for headset that can take you beyond the basic Google Cardboard experience, the $89 Noon VR is a serious contender for your affection. This sleek, attractive, plastic HMD has adjustable velcro bands that tuck into the headset and adjust from left, right, and top. It features wide-angle lenses that support a 95-degree field of view.

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Lightweight at 8 ounces, the goggles can accommodate any 4.5- to 5.7-inch phone, and they have foam backing around the face and nose to prevent scratching and irritation. Noon VR’s overall casing seems well proportioned for smaller heads and faces. Ventilation holes on the top and bottom quadrants of the unit help prevent lens fog.

Your phone is anchored in a mounting frame where a silicone strap holds it securely. The design makes inserting or removing your phone quick and easy. The support knobs on the bottom of the unit ensure that your phone is positioned within the headset, though you may have to move it around to adjust it correctly.

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The lenses accommodate a focal adjustment of between -8 and +4 diopters, with a top ring that offers additional help in finding the right focus. For the most part, with the aid of the ring, I could see clearly without experiencing double vision; but even with my high-powered anti-astigmatism contact lenses, I noticed a lot of pixelation on my high-resolution iPhone 6S, regardless of how much I adjusted the lenses. On the other hand, even without wearing my contact lenses, I experienced some videos very clearly.

One drawback I noticed was a slight light leak from the top as I watched videos: When I removed the smartphone, light flowed in from directly above the nose. Keeping the face plate attached while viewing would prevent that from happening.

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The Noon VR has no physical buttons; everything is controlled by software. The headset uses a dedicated app that you download after supplying a registration code that comes in the box. This app, which uses head-tracking technology, worked quite well, letting me operate numerous controls—including brightness, volume, aspect ratio, format, and video navigation—exclusively with head movements.

To reorient an app, just tap on the middle of your phone, and everything in view will jump to the middle of the scene. Tap twice to view and adjust the controls. Regrettably, the head-tracking feature didn’t work with Google’s Cardboard app, Vrse, or other apps I tried that adhere to their own standards. Consequently, to view a different video in Vrse, you must remove the phone from the headset, make another selection, and then reinsert it. As with most smartphone-based headsets, head tracking and visual acuity rely on the specs built into the phone.

Though the Noon VR app for iOS and Android has a limited number of selections, it allows you to view video in your own library, download selections from other users, and share your own videos with the Noon VR community through its own uploading service. Noon VR also offers a list of other apps and games that it recommends.

I like the Noon VR’s design; but in the end, the only optimal app it worked with was its own. That limitation and the pixelated image quality in some apps hold it back.

Noon VR

by NextCore Corp, Ltd
List $89

Samsung Gear VR

The Samsung Gear VR may look like other smartphone-based VR headsets, but don’t let appearances fool you. It resembles other HMDs in that you view VR content via a headset through a smartphone. But the smartphone in question here is among a small subset of Samsung’s handset fleet that can run an app powered by Oculus software. That puts it in a class by itself. Gear VR is the only headset that provides a hardware connection to the phone—a major advantage in functionality and visual quality.

When you’re ready to travel to virtual worlds, you insert your phone into the HMD dock. It immediately launches Oculus Home, a VR content portal abounding with apps, movies, and games. The headset’s wide 96-degree field of view and 54-to-70mm IPD coverage deliver optics superior to those you can get with other phone-based models. At 11.2 ounces, it’s not super-lightweight, but it’s so well designed that it feels good on your face anyway.

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The headset itself offers much better control than you get with generic headsets that accommodate all phones. The hardware has more controls than the average Cardboard clone, too: Samsung pairs a four-way directional touchpad at the upper right with a dedicated back button for hands-free navigation. A raised center nub makes navigation easy; and once you orient yourself to the headset, you can feel your way around the controls naturally. The Oculus software is designed specifically to work with the Gear VR (as well as with the turbo-powered Oculus Rift).

The setup differs from other phone-based headsets because of the hardware connection between the phone and headset via a micro-USB dock on the left that clicks in place with a plastic holder on the right. The headset’s on-board accelerometer, gyroscope, and proximity-based sensors enhance the experience by reducing latency and boosting performance.

The downside is that it works with relatively few Samsung devices—Galaxy Note 5, Galaxy S6 Edge Plus, S6, and S6 Edge. It is made specifically for the AMOLED displays on those phones, which deliver superior color, clarity, and performance. Yet, at $99, the price is quite competitive.

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A couple of elasticized velcro harnesses — around the back and over the top of your head — help the Gear VR sit securely. You can wear eyeglasses if you want, and a focus wheel at the top lets you adjust the view to accommodate your eyesight. In my hands-on testing, the Gear VR lenses (when used with the high-resolution Galaxy S6 Edge Plus) came through with the clearest image quality of any phone-based headset I tried.

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After an hour of viewing apps, playing games, and watching TV programs, I noticed that that the phone felt quite hot. The newer Samsung S7, with its built-in liquid cooling system, helps to prevent overheating.

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The Samsung Gear VR is a great example of a midmarket product that offers high-end features at a low price. If you have one of the Samsung phone models that it works with, you’re in luck.

Gear VR

by Samsung
List $100

Oculus Rift

If you’re familiar with the Oculus Rift DK2 from last year—the prerelease version distributed only to developers— be advised that the new consumer Rift is much enhanced. A true consumer product, this computer-tethered HMD is a lot sleeker, though hardly lightweight at 17 ounces. It features a stylish black plastic casing that fits over your skull, with an adjustable head strap that tightens by means of a spring-loaded mechanism. Its HDMI and USB cables now reside in a single sheath, and the harness has also been streamlined. Clearly the Rift has undergone a profound metamorphosis since it launched on Kickstarter in 2012, prior to being bought by Facebook in 2014.

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You’ll want to use a little finesse in placing and removing the unit: Instead of jamming it on or ripping it off your head, you can ease in and out of it by adjusting the frame and sliding it on your head with a back-to-front movement. A big improvement for the public release is the swivel-down headphones conveniently built into the headset. Nothing looks and feel more awkward to me than getting all settled into a head-mounted display and then having to top it off with headphones, but with the Rift you can do that. If you have better headphones or earbuds than the Rift offers, you can swap them in. For me, the all-in-one design is optimal.

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The Rift also comes with a camera sensor to assist with head tracking, an Oculus Remote for navigation and gameplay, an Xbox One controller, and plenty of cables to link everything together. No controls are built into the headset itself. And though you can move around while wearing it, the Rift is designed as a sit-down experience—so a swivel chair works well.

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The Oculus Rift’s visuals are excellent: The display features 2160-by-1200-pixel resolution with Dual OLED displays (1080 by 1200 for each eye), a 90Hz refresh rate, and a 110-degree field of view. So when you follow the hero of Chronos or the action of EVE: Valkyrie, you feel like you’re right there. A single button controller lets you click to begin or end a VR session.

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I had several positive experiences with the Rift, and it excelled in the important aspects of comfort, presence, and immersion, but I always knew where I was. My brain was not tricked into thinking that I was somewhere other than at a demo station. In part, this was due to the hand controller, which enabled me to consciously dominate the scene in an essential way. I expect the Rift experience to be even more realistic when Oculus releases its eagerly anticipated touch controllers this summer.

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The Rift was released on March 28 for $599, and the company will sell the controllers separately at a price as yet unannounced. You can buy a compatible computer as part of a bundle or separately from Asus, Dell, or Alienware, each of which is selling special Rift-centric configurations for about $1,000.

Right now, the Oculus Rift is state-of-the-art VR. If you have a chance to see and experience it, you’ll find that it’s worth the time and effort involved. Moreover, Oculus has made sure that there’s plenty of stuff for you to see and do.

Rift

by Oculus
List $599

HTC Vive

Where are you? You might want to think twice before answering that question, especially if you happen to be wearing a Vive (rhymes with hive) HMD, recently released by HTC and video game company Valve. When you slip that gothic-looking mask over your face, you are instantly transported to whatever world you’ve chosen. That’s my way of praising the immersive environment generated by the Vive, with its unique standing and walking design. Flexing a combined resolution of 2160 by 1200, a refresh rate of 90Hz, and a field of view that extends across 110 degrees, it competes directly with the new Oculus Rift, while providing a different kind of experience.

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For people who are serious about experiencing VR, the Vive is a computer-tethered virtual reality juggernaut. But to benefit from all that otherworldliness, you need a big empty space measuring 15 by 15 feet, lest you break your neck tumbling over a floor lamp.

Unlike sleek headsets from Oculus and Sony, the Vive faceplate has a monster-from-outer-space look, paired with a set of motion controllers that function like extensions of your hands, letting you grab and manipulate objects. Interchangeable foam inserts and nose pads make the unit more comfortable and accommodate eyeglasses. The 32 indented infrared tracking dots on the face of the headset are accompanied by a small front-facing camera embedded into the front of the unit. A pair of earbuds and a couple of motion-detecting base stations top off the package. And don’t forget, you’ll need a heavy-duty PC to run it.

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The demo I participated in seemed less comfortable and polished than I had expected. It took a bit of doing to strap this imposing contraption onto my tiny pinhead; and when it was secured, I felt the weight immediately.

The Vive’s motion controllers, along with its room-size standing and walking capabilities, are a big part of the HMD’s allure. This is not your little brother’s game controller—or the Oculus Rift’s, for that matter. The controllers’ haptic-feedback touch pads, grips, triggers, and buttons are the key to the Vive’s natural feel. Besides conveying an environment that you see and hear, haptic feedback enhances the overall feeling of presence by adding touch to the mix.

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Want to be scared silly? Try the new Everest VR with the HTC Vive. Everest is an experience, not a game—and it was terrifying. If you’re afraid of heights you may not be able to get through it. For me, it felt way too real as I tried to stay on my feet despite the gusting wind blowing through my ears and struggling to grasp a frozen rope bridge — which did not look secure at all — along the side of the snowy mountain with a huge drop. One false move, and you’re history. This is the first time I’ve ever been genuinely frightened in VR, and I’m certain that any observers watching me flail through the demo must have been laughing their heads off. But I couldn’t hear them.

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The HTC Vive costs more than the Rift—$799 for the headset plus at least $1000 for a compatible computer. It ships with the headset and a panoply of accouterments: two wireless controllers, a pair of base stations to measure spatial data, a link box connecting the headset to the computer, and ear buds. HTC also bundles software (Job Simulator, Fantastic Contraption, and Tilt Brush) in the package.

If you’re looking for presence and immersion, look no further.

Vive

by HTC
List $799

Sony PlayStation VR

Talk about sleek: The PlayStation VR (PSVR) is a beautifully designed, almost pretty HMD that provides profound immersive experiences. A lightweight headset that fits naturally and comfortably on your noggin, it fastens with a single strap, and you can use a button release to adjust the fit by moving the headpiece back and forth. The eyepiece moves separately, governed by another button beneath the lenses.

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Unlike the Oculus Rift, which cleverly integrates a set of headphones into the unit, the PSVR requires you to bring your own. PSVR works with the company’s PlayStation 4 game console and dedicated Move motion controllers—hand wands with a latency of less than 18 milliseconds. Its 5.7-inch OLED 1080p display runs at up to 120 frames per second.

Nine signature blue LED lights positioned around the headset give it a cool space-age look and enable the PlayStation external camera to records your head turns by tracking the lights. In addition to working with the Move Motion Controllers, you can use the bat-shaped DualShock gamepad to navigate PSVR space: Both have LEDs for the camera to follow.

I found the whole effect quite immersive, but I always knew exactly where I was when playing games in environments that weren’t photorealistic.

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One demo game, Waltz of the Wizard, requires you to grasp and lift a small spell-laden ball and drop it into a cauldron. Dipping your hand into the potion bestows certain powers, like the ability to transform other objects in the room by just touching them. It was a little glitchy—I had to try grasping the little ball a few times—but it still was an engaging experience. Another cool interactive movie/game for PlayStation is Gary the Gull, a fast-talking cartoon seagull who has perfected the art of verbal three-card monte. It’s Gary’s world and you’re in it, but he’s a seagull, so keep an eye on your lunch.

PlayStation VR may well prove to be a viable alternative to the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive for people who crave the VR experience without the upfront expense of outfitting or purchasing a new compatible Windows PC. PSVR runs on a standard PlayStation 4, with bundles priced at about $500.

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Sony’s PlayStation VR is scheduled for release in October for $399. Combined with a PlayStation 4 and other accessories, the entire system will run about $800. Sony reports that it is working with more than 230 developers on games for the unit.

List $400

Photo credits: Samsung, DODOcase, Homido, HTC, Merge VR, Noon VR, Oculus, Sony.