VR Q&A: What You Need to Know About VR Headsets

By Jackie Dove

Virtual Reality headsets are the hot new tech craze, so naturally you're curious. Here's everything you need to know to get started.

Virtual Reality, or VR, for short has been around in various guises for more than 20 years, but only in the last two have many people paid it any mind. That's largely because Google, in its infinite wisdom, decided to take a chance on mass distribution of an essential piece of hardware — a VR headset it christened Cardboard.

Google Cardboard was an investment with a brilliant strategy: First, make it cheap and disposable; second, make it simple and easy to use; third, make it available for free or almost so; and fourth, get high-profile mainstream businesses like newspapers, sports teams, art galleries, and music festivals excited about it. Last but not least, it dovetailed with the rise of creation tools for filmmakers, photographers, game programmers, journalists, and hobbyists, to generate a perpetual content engine to keep people engaged in a product that didn't look like anything most people had ever seen before.

Today, as we approach the mid-point of what people are calling "the year of VR," few have not at least heard of virtual reality and the intriguing, futuristic looking headset that makes it all happen in your own home. Almost everyone is curious about what VR is and how it fits into their lives. Below are answers to some basic questions about how you can get started with VR and how headsets will enhance your experiences.

What is a mobile headset?

A VR headset is a viewer that you hold up to your eyes or strap to your face. And a mobile headset is one that replies on inserting your smartphone for the content. A tethered headset, in contrast, is one that requires an entire PC to do its magic. We'll talk about that later.

Google Cardboard is the best example of a mobile headset because was the first and remains the simplest. There are numerous variations on the Cardboard headset now, and all that's needed to create them is some kind of enclosure — from cardboard to plastic to foam — that you can hold up to your eyes and view content from various smartphones. Cardboard clones are equipped with a set of lenses (of varying quality and field of view), allowing you to view 3D, 360-degree and stereoscopic images and video. Cardboard has lenses that deliver a wider field of view than a pair of glasses, and combined with specially shot content, deliver a rudimentary but immersive VR experience.

Combined, the lenses and special video puts you directly in the middle of the scene, where you can see the full environment from every direction — as if you were present in the room. Audio heightens the sense of being somewhere else.

The original Google Cardboard

How do mobile headsets work?

Mobile headsets come in a variety of designs, but they all have several things in common, with most relying on technology built into a smartphone. The headset can be basic, acting as a holder for your smartphone, which is inserted into a secure slot in front of the built-in lenses. That lets you look through the viewer to see the virtual world on your screen.

Various VR apps can be downloaded from Apple's App Store or the Google Play store. The quality of the smartphone — whether it has a high-resolution screen, a gyroscope, or an accelerometer — determines the quality of the experience.

Samsung Gear VR headset has a hardware connection to your smartphone.

Some headsets have their own built-in navigation controls. Merge VR has a button that acts like a finger tap. The Google branded Cardboard (as opposed to Cardboard clones from other vendors) has a magnet that serves the same function. Samsung Gear VR takes it one step further with a hardware connection via a dock in the headset that powers its high quality Oculus software with four-way touch navigation and a dedicated back button. The Noon VR has no external controls and is governed by head movements.

How do headsets feel?

Non-cardboard headsets are generally made of lightweight plastic weighing between half a pound and a little more than a pound. That doesn't sound like a lot — except when that weight is on your face. Some headsets are constructed to accommodate eyeglasses, while others are not.

A VR headset should be well balanced and securely strapped to your head.

More than anything, the comfort of a headset depends on its balance, the quality of its lenses, and the field of view. If you are watching an engaging video whose visuals look clear and sharp, then you'll be less likely to notice a weight on your nose or pressure between your eyes. If the straps are fitted just right, it won't matter if the goggles are a little heavier because everything will sit properly in front of your eyes. Headset comfort is highly subjective, and it may take some experimentation to get yours to fit properly.

Can headsets make you motion sick?

Headsets, by themselves, do not cause nausea or motion sickness. It's the content you watch that will affect how you feel, and it's all highly subjective. Some people find that watching a fast-moving video with lots of action, flash, and color isn't comfortable for more than a few minutes, while watching a movie through your Gear VR is far more tolerable.

Constantly twisting and turning in your chair and moving your head in all directions to see things or take action in VR may also feel fatigue you. Use common sense, especially of you are just starting out. If a particular app doesn't feel good, then stop it or remove the goggles from your face.

VR headsets are supposed to be fun — they should not make you sick.

What are the best smartphones for headsets?

Because VR is viewed on the smartphone screen via a pair of built-in lenses, you'll find that the higher the resolution of the screen, the better the VR experience. Full HD (1080p) resolution smartphones like the iPhone 6 Plus and the HTC One M9 are 1080 x 1920 pixels while 2K Quad HD (QHD) phones like the Samsung Galaxy S6, LG G4, and Sony Xperia Z3+ have resolutions of 1440 x 2560 pixels, bringing a sharper and clearer visual through your headset. Any smartphone manufactured within the last two years from any vendor should be compatible with almost any headset on the market.

Sony Xperia Z5 Premium already has a 4K screen resolution.

It's anyone's guess if or how much smartphone screen resolution will grow in the future, but if the 4K Ultra HD (UHD) resolution Sony Xperia Z5 Premium is any indication, vendors are already climbing on board. 4K resolution opens new vistas for smartphone-based headsets to provide a top-notch VR experience.

How are tethered headsets different from mobile headsets?

While the graphics don't reach the level of tethered headsets, mobile VR is cheap and can be enjoyed anywhere. If you want a superior, fully immersive experience, you'll want a "tethered" VR rig -- specifically, one that tethers to a PC rather than simply using your smartphone.

That's either the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, the only tethered headsets available today. The total cost can come to $1500 or more after you buy both the headset and a beefy PC capable of supporting it.

Tethered headsets don't just connect to your PC, but are generally bristling with sensors that precisely know the position and orientation of your head in space. That means they let you peer the virtual world from any angle and any position -- something a smartphone-based mobile headset can't do.

What is the Oculus Rift like?

Oculus Rift is the original headset that started the VR revolution in 2012 and has come to define VR in this early era. It's the first out the gate after its humble beginnings as a Kickstarter project and then its acquisition by Facebook. The Rift delivers more immersive experiences than mobile headsets with a greater feeling of presence in part because it is attached to a high-powered computer for content input.

Oculus Rift

Because the Rift offers a PC-based experience tethered by physical wires, you will need some sort of hand controller (at least for now) to direct the action. Initially, Rift ships with a gamepad-like controller -- the sort of thing you'd use on an Xbox. Later, more intuitive hand controllers will become available.

Oculus is basically a sit-down experience, meaning that the best way to traverse a virtual world is to be sitting in a swivel chair to follow the 360-degree action. With the Rift, the world comes to you.

Oculus Rift Touch Controller will be out later this year.

How does the HTC Vive compare to the Oculus Rift?

The Vive and the Rift are variations on a theme: Both are tethered to PCs, and somewhat similar in concept and visual experience.

The big difference between the two is that the HTC Vive supports an Oculus-like seated experience, but it's really intended for "room scale," in which you can walk around your actual (empty) room to interact with the VR world. You'll need to clear a decently sized space for this to work -- anywhere from 6 to 15 feet, in fact, depending upon how much space you can spare. Even though the Vive is tethered with wires to a high-end computer, the leash is quite long, with your movements tracked in the environment.

The Vive is also unique right now in that it comes with a pair of hand controllers, similar to the ones that are "coming soon" at additional cost for Oculus users.

HTC Vive head mounted display

What is special about the Sony PlayStation VR?

This fall, Sony promises to deliver a different kind of headset: The PlayStation VR (PSVR), based on its existing PlayStation 4 game console. The concept is the same as other tethered systems: PSVR is a sleek headset paired with a set of hand controllers. Like the Rift, PSVR will be mainly a sit-down experience, but initial costs may be lower as some already own the game console the headset works with.

Sony PlayStation's VR headset works with the PlayStation 4 game console.

Can you view Augmented Reality with a VR headset?

AR and VR approach the world from different perspectives, but both can be viewed through the same kind of headset. Augmented Reality differs from Virtual Reality in that you never leave the real world. Rather, it is augmented by visuals added to it that only you can see with a viewer. With AR, you can still be present in your living room sitting on the couch and viewing other objects in the room. But you can also see flying cranes swoop down and land on your furniture or dinosaurs prancing on top of the dining table or the TV. These visions are not real, but computer generated to add another dimension to the current environment.

Merge VR's cutout leave the smartphone camera exposed to view AR.

With VR, on the other hand, you are literally transported into another space and time. You are no longer in your living room but in outer space or the bottom of the ocean, or in solitary confinement, or in a refugee camp, or wherever your chosen world resides. You are completely immersed and present somewhere other than the place you actually are.

What's next for VR headsets?

So far, virtual reality has existed mostly in the realm of sight and sound — but touch is already on its way. As the science advances, the next step will be a standalone headset that runs on its own with neither computer nor smartphone input. Google, according to a Financial Times report, is already developing such a device. Sources told the newspaper that the new headset will include a screen, powerful processors, cameras, and chips that use the cameras’ feeds to track user head movements, and enclosed in a sturdy plastic case.

Pico Neo VR is coming to the U.S. soon.

Others, such as Pico Neo VR are devising a different hybrid system. Instead of relying on a smartphone, the Pico Neo runs on a Snapdragon 820 processor, with 4GB of RAM and 32GB of storage stuffed in its Bluetooth gamepad controller. The system ships with a tracking kit and two handheld controllers, two cameras, a Tracking Kit Station and tracking beacon to support Vive-like room experiences. The headset also has a pair of 3.8-inch, 1200 x 1080 resolution AMOLED displays with a 102-degree field of view accompanied by DiveSound 3D sound effect software and Unity 3D.

All this sounds like a lot -- and it is. The VR headsets available today constitute the "early days" of this technology, where it is struggling to produce enough high quality content to keep people's interest. Tangible results in VR were a long time in coming, but the future looks bright.