The virtual-reality fad of the early ’90s created scores of breathless and goofy newscasts, one terrible Nintendo console called the Virtual Boy, and the cult classic film The Lawnmower Man, which taught us that mentally challenged landscapers could become super-geniuses with telepathic powers by playing video games and having sex in VR.
But by Bill Clinton’s second term, VR was essentially dead, done in by high prices, marketing that overhyped and underdelivered, and the discovery that Lawnmower Manmay have been playing a bit fast and loose about the scientific facts around VR and neural enhancement. Then, in 2011, an 18-year-old named Palmer Luckey hacked together what would eventually become the Oculus Rift VR headset. It attracted the attention of John Carmack, a cult figure in video games (he was lead programmer on Doom), who took Luckey’s duct-taped prototype to the computer gaming world’s biggest trade show, E3, in 2012, where it attracted a fair amount of attention in the gaming press. The Oculus Rift would raise over $2.4 million on Kickstarter, and was acquired by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014.
Now, with four other large companies pursuing similar technology and several more waiting in the wings, VR is on the verge of escaping the stigma of being a fad, instead becoming part of many people’s daily lives — and not just gamers. What great virtual reality provides is something VR designers call “presence”: the bone-deep feeling that no matter what your forebrain knows ("I’m wearing a goofy cyber-BDSM mask with a bunch of wires attached while waving plastic wands), it isn’t enough to dissuade the rest of you from believing in the reality of what you're seeing ("I’m 300 feet below the ocean surface and a huge blue whale just swam by and stared me in the eye").
It works on the basic part of the human brain that we’ve had for millions and millions of years, the one that yanks your hand away from something hot, bypassing rational thought and firing off neurons. It’s a feeling both wildly exhilarating and a little humbling — a reminder that below layers of abstract thought, we’re still just walking apes who will freak out if we see a bright light come at us from the corner of our eyes. It’s an experience unlike anything else available right now.
If that pitch was enough to hook you, here are the six main ways you’ll be able to try out VR this year.
Google Cardboard ($15)
In June of 2014, Google released Cardboard — a lightweight rig that lets you use your phone a bit like an old-school Viewmaster (or, if you want to go really old-school,stereoscopes from the late 1800s). To use Cardboard, you hold the device up to your face to watch various bits of movies or play rudimentary games — though because your hands are occupied, the only way to interact with the world is by looking at it. Google was mainly using the device as a way to get a simple form of VR into the hands of a lot of people (it did two separate giveaways with New York Times Sunday subscribers, and the sets were handed out at various trade shows like toothbrushes at the dentist’s office). Think of Cardboard as the Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station of VR — the basic concept is there, even if the tech is rudimentary.
Who Should Buy It? Anyone with a smartphone who wants a glimpse of VR for the cost of a cheap meal on Seamless.
Samsung Gear VR ($99)
While Google was working with corrugated cardboard, Samsung was teaming up with Oculus to create the Samsung Gear VR, also released in 2014 (with at least one update since). Only compatible with Samsung phones, the Gear VR uses proprietary tech from Oculus to accommodate head pitch, yaw, and roll (essentially, all the ways you can move your head around). That solved a problem facing the Cardboard, which, when used with certain phones, began to get sloppy in its motion tracking. By limiting compatibility to specific phones, the Gear VR doesn’t suffer from this problem. If you have a recent Samsung phone (uh, besides the Note 7 — you don’t want to strap an explosive to your face), were intrigued by Samsung’s ad campaign, and don’t mind laying out $100, this is a great way to experience the basic promise of VR — especially since its virtual storefront offers hundreds of games and 3-D videos to check out.
Who Should Buy It? Anyone with a Samsung Phone who wants the best VR experience you can get on a smartphone (at least for the next few weeks).
Google Daydream View ($79)
It’s a bit harder to judge this one, since I only got a ten-minute demo earlier this week. But what I saw was impressive. Besides undercutting the Samsung Gear VR on price, the Daydream seems to have figured out the head-movement problem that plagued the Cardboard — sweeping my head from side to side was lag-free and didn’t make my stomach lurch. Other nice touches include a softer fabric on the headset (important if you’re going to wear the thing for longer than 20 minutes) and the ability to comfortably wear glasses inside the unit.
But the real secret weapon of the Daydream is its included controller. While the Gear VR has a optional control pad available for purchase, it looks a lot like an XBox or PlayStation controller. The Daydream's control pad works more like a laser pointer, with just a small trackpad and two buttons, and it allows users to point and move things around naturally. An XBox or PlayStation controller makes sense to anyone raised on Halo or Grand Theft Auto, but is unnatural to anyone who didn’t. Pointing your hand at something, however? That’s something we learn to do long before we even learn how to talk. The Daydream, out in early November, will work with any phone that is “Daydream certified,” which from what I can gather means extremely fast and high-end Android phones. At launch, the only two phones that will be able to use the Daydream will be the Pixel and the Pixel XL, though Motorola, Samsung, HTC, ZTE, Huawei, Xiaomi, Alcatel, Asus, LG, and HTC all have phones coming down the pike that will run Daydream.
Who Should Buy It? Early adopters of Google’s new line of smartphones who don’t mind waiting a few weeks — or anyone interested in VR and and is in the market for a new high-end Android handset.
The PlayStation VR ($399 for the headset or $499 for the headset, camera, and two PlayStation Move controllers, plus $355 if you don’t own a PS4 )
This is where VR starts to get really interesting (and really expensive). The Cardboard, Gear, and Daydream all lack something called “positional tracking” — while they can match your head movements as you swivel your neck around, nothing happens when you lean forward or backward, or get up and walk around (not recommended unless you’ve cleared out some room beforehand). Those basic VR headsets simply don’t know where you are in 3-D space — only what direction your head is pointed in.
The PlayStation VR, along with its higher-end brethren below, allows you to move your entire body much more normally, and the PlayStation Move controllers — essentiallywireless light-up glow sticks with a few buttons — enable users to point and grab and lift in a surprisingly intuitive manner. This device also benefits from having a major console manufacturer like Sony backing it: The launch list of games is impressive, and there’s a good pipeline of more interesting titles to come. While more expensive options exist, if you’re truly curious about VR, already have a PS4, and want to get the best experience possible for under a grand, this is the system to get.
Who Should Buy It? Anyone with a PS4 lying around their house and any amount of curiosity about what VR can do.
The Rift, which jump-started the rebirth of VR, has had a rough go of it since its launch in early summer. First there were supply problems, preventing early Kickstarter backers from getting their promised Rift. Then the $599 headset only included an XBox controller, which is generally acknowledged as one of the poorer ways to move around in VR, while its (genuinely excellent) Oculus Touch controllers were delayed. Compounding all that is the stiff competition on the low end from the PlayStation VR and on the high end from the HTC Vive (below), and nothing in the Oculus game library can truly be called a killer app — that one game that can compel everyone to throw down at least a grand on the headset.
That said, the Oculus has the deep pockets of Facebook behind it, its Oculus Touch controllers provide the best sense yet of giving you actual hands in virtual reality, and its decision to open up development on the Rift means even a small and dedicated team of devs could create something that makes the Oculus the top VR headset.
Who Should Buy It? VR enthusiasts who want to support the company that made this revival possible and/or want access to Oculus Rift exclusives.
The HTC Vive (The cost of a compatible PC plus $799 for the headset)
If money were no object, I had a house large enough to dedicate a room to VR, and that room had a secure lock so no one could stumble in and see me waving my arms around at imaginary stuff, the HTC Vive would be the system I'd buy. The Vive has one major advantage over the Oculus and PSVR: You can actually walk around while using it, thanks to the two sensors set up in the high corners of your room. This ability to walk around freely and safely (the system will alert you if you're about to run into a wall) changes a lot of things. You find yourself crouching down to avoid incoming fire. You can walk slowly around a table, examining everything on there as closely as possible. In one memorable moment while playing Everest VR, I was asked to step out into empty air while on the edge of a cliff high in the Himalayas. While I knew I was just in a conference room in Chelsea, it took a tremendous amount of will to actually step out — and seeing myself floating thousands of feet up was so unsettling I quickly scampered back to “safe” ground.
While the HTC’s controllers leave something to be desired — it feels more like you’re holding cheap kitchen utensils than using your hands — nothing I’ve used in VR has so completely wrapped me up in a fake world. It’s not the Holodeck, but it’s the closest thing we’re gonna have for a while.
Who Should Buy It? Deep-pocketed tech geeks with a lot of extra square-footage who want to experience the best version of VR currently on the market.
We are, for all intents and purposes, in the first generation of VR (let’s pretend that what happened with VR in the early ’90s didn't happen at all). Games are still trying to figure out simple thing like how to move players around with making them get motion sickness (something I’ve experienced a few times — and I’ve never been motion-sick in my life until using VR). Companies like Microsoft, Nintendo, and Apple all seem to be edging their way toward VR, and the price of hardware will drop while the headsets get better. Meanwhile, as mobile phones become more powerful and gain the ability to use position tracking, they may become the most popular VR platform out there.
But the challenge for VR is that it’s isolating, and still a bit cumbersome. You have to pull on a headset, making you effectively blind to the world around you. You can play online with other people, but the actual physical experience, no matter how much your brain is being fooled, is you sitting or standing in a dark room, by yourself. How many people who aren’t already deeply in love with video games will really want to spend their free time this way?
There is another option. This summer’s craze over Pokémon Go was partly because Pokémon is insanely popular, but also showed how powerful augmented reality (AR) games could be, because instead of isolating you away in a virtual world, it layered something extra on top of the world that already exists, and forced players to get outside and explore it. Upcoming technology like Microsoft’s Hololens (which is shockingly impressive to use in person) or the long-rumored Magic Leap could give people a way to play in virtual worlds while staying firmly planted in this real world. Is the future complete immersion in an escapist virtual reality? Or figuring out a way to inject the fantastic into our everyday lives?