Virtual reality (VR) isn't a far-off concept anymore. The technology that can transport you to a different digital world from the comfort of your lounge room is here to stay. You may not have encountered it, but you will, because headsets are popping up in stores and online all over the world.
What is it?
Virtual reality headsets put your point of view in the centre of a digital space, which can be a photograph, a video, an animation or a piece of software such as a video game. Once you put on the headset, you're free to turn around and look at everything within the virtual sphere.
Say you're looking at footage of a farm on TV. There's a lovely green pasture in front, but if you turn around and look over your shoulder, you'll see your lounge room. In VR, you could watch the same footage, turn around and see a herd of cattle behind you. This is known as 360° content.
Passive vs active
There are two types of VR experiences: passive, which involves kicking back and looking at a 360° photo or video from a fixed perspective, and active, which lets you interact with the content and change your perspective. One example is plugging in a keyboard and mouse to play a racing game – you're still using traditional controls, but instead of looking at the car on a 2D screen, you're sitting inside it when you're wearing the VR headset.
Your body will react to passive and active content, as either option can trick your brain into believing you're in the digital environment. Riding a VR rollercoaster, for example, can give you the same feeling in the pit of your stomach, even though you're nowhere near a theme park.
How does VR work?
The quality of the picture, and the headset's capabilities, depend on two factors: the technology and build quality of the headset, and the device used to power it. None of the headsets on the market are self-contained, they all require an external device such as a smartphone, PC or games console. Prices start at around $30 for entry-level models, and can go as high as $1400 for top-of-the-line kits.
Dual lenses inside the headset simultaneously process two images to create the illusion of depth. Motion-tracking equipment, either built into the headset (or the device powering it) or connected externally, picks up head movement and in some cases body movement.
VR quality depends on what's powering the headset. Most fall into one of these categories:
- Entry-level: Headsets that act as a case for a smartphone. You can use any smartphone in an entry-level headset within the manufacturer-specified size limit. Examples: Google Cardboard, Cocoon.
- Mid-range: Better quality image that requires a specific smartphone, such as a Samsung Galaxy model, or games console to run. Examples: GearVR, Sony PlayStation VR (PS VR).
- High-end: Advanced, powerful headsets capable of producing a high-quality image, which requires a top-tier PC. Examples: Oculus Rift, HTC Vive.
A headset device that needs an $800 phone or $550 console to work may not sound "mid-range", but this is the case in the grand scheme of VR. Top-tier headsets cost over $1000, in addition to a required high-end PC that will set you back a minimum of $2000.
Sit down, stand up
There are several ways you can interact with the digital space when you're immersed in an active experience. Most mid-range headsets let you connect a games controller to the device powering the VR software. In this case, you're essentially playing a game in the same way you would on a console or PC, but with a different perspective. Higher end models, such as PS VR and Oculus Rift (base model), use a single camera and motion-sensing controls, which can detect full-body movements within a small, fixed space. You can't quite walk around, but you can stand up, sit down, crouch, lean, turn around and so on.
Room-scale experiences are the next step up. These require at least two cameras placed a few metres apart, to create a VR play space that detects your entire body, so you can walk around the digital space. When we tested VR, the HTC Vive was the only room-scale headset on the market, but Oculus has since released motion controllers and an additional camera for the Rift, that adds the same features. The type of controllers required comes down to the software developer, but most will give you a range of options to choose from. Many Vive games, for example, give you a choice of using keyboard and mouse, an Xbox controller or motion sensing.
All the bits and pieces
High-end headsets demand more equipment. Most of the essentials come in the bundle, but PS VR doesn't include the required PlayStation 4 Camera ($89). Other first- and third-party peripherals, such as motion controls, are sold separately, but they're a must-have addition in some cases. PS VR for example, doesn't ship with the PlayStation Move motion sensing controls, which detect hand/arm movement for use in the VR environment. Even if you have one from previous PlayStation motion games, you'll need two for VR, which means buying another two-pack. Similarly, the Oculus Rift base kit doesn't include the Touch motion controllers (which ship with a second camera for room-scale game play).
Bear in mind that although full-body and room-scale options can provide a better experience, they are harder to set up. This is one area where mobile VR has an ease of use advantage. Most VR doesn't require a lot of 'working' space though and you should usually have enough room for your headset of choice, unless you want to try the Vive's room-scale setup.
Games, software and entertainment
Good software can make or break a VR brand, and while we didn't look at specific program titles in our test, we found that there still aren't many "killer apps" that make a convincing case for VR. That's to be expected though, as it's still early days for VR after all, and a lot of content appears to be aimed at the gaming market. However, these headsets can do a whole lot more than gaming.
You can find software for education, real estate, tourism and online shopping, to name a few categories. Tourism is particularly fun, as VR lets you 'travel' to another location, without leaving your home. You can even make your own travel content, with consumer-grade 360° cameras. Branded versions of Google Cardboard are also popular promotional items, from companies such as Ebay. These are more or less the same as a standard Cardboard, just with a different coat of paint.
There's plenty of 360° video online as well. YouTube is just one popular service that supports VR, and most headsets have their own 360 video libraries. You can even watch 2D content in a VR headset if you really want to. Oculus and Vive use their own shopfronts (e.g. PlayStation Store), and Steam online (store.steampowered.com), while PS VR and GearVR lock things down to their own digital stores. All other mobile-based headsets are a little less centralised, so it can be difficult to find fun apps unless you know exactly what you're after.
Most brands distribute software online (aside from PlayStation, which sells PS VR games in retail stores), and this can be a problem, as Australian internet speeds are still pretty average. You may have to wait some time for software to download, as well as system updates and drivers, before you can do anything with your headset.
Although there's a broad range of software available for each tier, you'll find that the headset quality and experience is indicative of the kind of software it supports. An entry-level, smartphone-based headset, for example, is best used for short, simple, passive experiences with average image quality.
Health and safety
Given that it's still early days for VR, most manufacturers are taking a cautionary approach to health and safety. No one knows what will happen if you use VR for hours at a time, every single day, though it is generally advised against. Most manufacturers recommend regular breaks. Sony, for example, suggests 15 minutes rest for every hour inside PS VR.
You're likely to experience some discomfort after a while, especially with the top-end models, as they're quite heavy. Straps, and padding between the headset and your face, are the main contact points that cause discomfort. The lenses on some models will fog up after a while as well, especially during full-body and room-scale experiences.
VR may even make your stomach churn at first. The sensation can be similar to motion sickness. While technology improvements, such as higher video refresh rates, have reduced the likelihood and impact of nausea, you may still feel a little queasy after an extended or vigorous stint in VR.
There are too many variables including brand, software and level of immersion, to say exactly how you'll be affected. However, our testers have increased their tolerance after repeated use over several weeks. This, of course, isn't to say you'll be affected, or that you'll adapt if you are, but our experience suggests that it's possible. The best way to tell is to try a headset yourself. You'll know fairly soon if you can handle it.
Not quite child friendly
VR seems like the perfect gift or holiday distraction for children, but only to a point. All manufacturers put an age restriction on their headsets, and while we haven't examined every single model out there, the brands we looked at in our VR test had the following limits in place:
- Cocoon: 14+
- GearVR: 13+
- Google Daydream: 13+
- Oculus Rift 13+
- PS VR: 12+
- Fly360: 3+
- Google Cardboard (and licensed variants): No age specified. Health and safety instructions say "Cardboard is not for use by children without adult supervision."
- HTC: No age specified. Health and safety instructions say "the product was not designed to be used by children."
Most brands don't specify why these restrictions apply, though we might expect this has to do with protecting young and still-developing eyes. We spoke to Professor Frank Martin and head orthoptist Sarita Beukes from the Sydney Ophthalmic Specialists about this, and they both agreed that limiting exposure is an important precautionary measure that parents should follow, until experts know more about the long-term effects of VR.
General limitations of VR
VR is an emerging technology, and there are a few technical shortcomings that affect all brands. The most prominent problem is the 'screen door effect', which is faintly visible horizontal and vertical lines appearing in the picture. Resolution is also well below 2D television. Even if the headset has the same number of pixels as an HD TV, for example, they are spread across two lenses to create the VR image, effectively halving the horizontal resolution.