A burly gladiator dashes at me with a sword in his hand. My instincts kick-in and I sidestep, steal his weapon and strike. He falls to the ground, the crowd of the arena cheers at my victory. Can you imagine it being there, in a real coliseum, in the flesh? Or in the bridge of a spaceship? Or even exploring a fantasy world? Well, you don´t have to, that's the point of VR.
VR technology in general, and headsets in particular, work by fooling your brain into thinking you are inside a virtual world. This is achieved thanks to headsets that obscure your reality and replace it with your desired fiction.
The technology, even just the idea that it represents, is so powerful that it was popular even before we had headsets or even personal computers, references to VR can be found dating as far back as 1933 with the novel "The Man Who Awoke".
But, it is only thanks to our modern mastery of computing and electronics that we are started to foray into the type classic Virtual Reality that we often see in sci-fi. We are now able to completely immerse ourselves in the fantasy and experience the thousands of games and videos available for our enjoyment.
Why? Because we now have affordable VR headsets that work as advertised (unlike, say, the Virtual Boy back in 1995). They are not perfect, and can even make you a bit nauseous at first (don´t worry, you get used to it) but they still deliver on their promise to make you feel inside another world.
So, it´s no wonder that millions of these little devices were sold across the world in the last few years.
You´ve probably heard of them. You might even have gone as far as to go to a shop or browse Amazon to see what the fuss is about.
And there, you might have hit your first hurdle. Some headsets cost around 600 dollars, others hover around 20 bucks. There is an astounding number of alternatives, and each seems unique in its offerings and requirements.
One headset might need a powerful computer to run, but the next one demands only your cellphone. A third alternative says that it needs nothing but the googles themselves, but after your last two candidates, can you believe it?
As you can probably imagine, there are many types of VR headsets available. So, I´m going to cut the clout and tell you straight up what they are, what are their advantages and disadvantages, and which are the finest examples in each category.
So, without further ado:
Types of VR Headsets
Phone headsets are the cheapest of them all, mainly because they aren´t headsets in the classical sense.
The main way VR achieves its immersive effect is by doing something that 3D cinema figured out a long time ago. They project two almost identical pictures to each eye, managing to fool your brain into thinking it is watching a 3D image with some "weight" to it:
The second ingredient in the VR recipe is making sure that you (or rather, your eyes) are cut off from the outside world. This is why the VR headsets are enclosing, to prevent outside light from reaching your eyes.
The final spice that completes the VR meal is motion tracking. If the image projected to your eyes remains static despite bobbling your head up and down; it´s hard to fool your brain into thinking that you are inside a digital world instead of watching a close-up movie. A way of tracking your head movements is required so that the picture can follow along.
"But wait", you might say, "if that's all that it takes, then I can make a VR headset with my phone, duct tape, and some cardboard!"
Yes. Yes, you can.
That's the point of the phone, or mobile, headsets. They don't have screens or circuits of their own, for they rely on one of several VR apps to turn your cellphone´s screen into a VR display.
This is why their games, videos and other related apps are also downloaded from the App Store or Google Play instead of a specialized store.
Their resolution, refresh rate, and all technical aspects of the image are dependent on your phone. This also means that when it comes to specs (graphical fidelity, definition, refresh rate), they are the worst of the bunch.
This is especially bad in VR, as bad graphics and choppy framerates can make you sick. Nonetheless, you can get used to them and enjoy a fun thrill ride in virtual reality.
If you are handy with tools, you could build a headset yourself with cardboard. This is why Alphabets' popular VR platform is called Google Cardboard. Most of these headsets are quite cheap because they tend to be glorified phone holders.
If you, like me, can´t glue paper to save your life, then I suggest buying one of the many platforms available. The main advantage of mobile headsets is that they are cheap, after all. Destek 5, for example, is a good headset that fits several kinds of smartphones, the Sneba is another, cheaper alternative.
While the last type of headset required your phone to work as its screen, these don´t require anything but what comes in the box when you buy them.
Standalone headsets come with earbuds (most of the time) and a built-in screen that displays images directly to each of your eyes. As a result, their framerate tends to be higher and their images crispier than their mobile competition.
An internal processor made with specialized software ensures that these goggles can run all the VR programs, apps, videos, and games available for each platform.
This means that you don´t need external hardware to play with a Standalone Headset. Your phone is only used to validate your account, and then you can forget about it as you foray into a virtual world.
So, where do you get your games for standalone headsets? From their own store, of course. Oculus has the Oculus Store, for example.
These stores tend to have fewer titles than their phone counterparts, but what they have is generally higher quality, as is more fine-tuned to the experience at hand.
Additionally, thanks to their built-in sensors, they have much better tracking than your phone. Some premium platforms even have full body tracking, meaning that they can follow the motions of all four limbs, even as you walk around the room, provided that you have special motion controllers.
Right, the controllers. Standalone headsets usually come with a pair of motion controls like these:
Do you remember the Nintendo Wii? These controllers work similarly to the Wii-mote. You move your hands, and the headset tracks it, allowing you to interact *directly* with the virtual world. This is especially important in VR as immersion is the name of the game.
Most headsets come with these controllers in a bundle, as the vast majority of games require them to work. However, you can still pair a gamepad to the headset and use it to play with a lot of titles (coincidentally, you can do this too for Phone VR).
While they are more expensive than their mobile counterparts, these headsets do represent a higher quality product, at least when it comes to simulating a virtual world.
The Oculus Quest is the best example of a premium standalone headset, but if that´s too expensive for you, you can try the Go.However, they re *not* the most powerful Headsets on the market, that honor goes to:
If we were to make a comparison in power, mobile headsets are like your standard moped, capable of only basic driving and going 35 mph. Standalone headsets are more powerful, like a normal car, and can reach 100 mph. PC powered headsets, meanwhile, zoom past their competitors at 150 mph, leaving behind only an afterimage their racing stripes.
When measuring PC headsets with mobile ones; their latency, definition, motion tracking, and graphical fidelity all blow them out of the water.
Standalone handsets fare better depending on the price range. The Quest, the most premium example, is almost able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Rift but ends up just shy of managing it.
As a result, they have greater computing power than their standalone competition, because it's not their computing power, but your PC´s.
This plays into their main advantage. They can bring entire worlds in VR like no other. The games available for PC headsets tend to be more complex, detailed, and large. Not only that, but they also enjoy VR ports of non-VR games like Skyrim, Doom and Fallout 4 (although there are ways to make even more titles compatible with the headsets).
While standalone headsets are limited to the offer of their company´s store (or the app´s store), games for PC platforms can be found across the web, with the biggest shop around being Steam. This variety gives them a plethora of thousands of additional games to play, aside from the ones on the headset´s particular store.
The main drawback of these headsets is that to be able to play these games, they need a fairly powerful computer to work.
If your PC doesn't have 8 Gb of Ram, and a GTX 970/AMD Series 400 or above graphics card, you can forget about buying these types of headsets, they will simply not work (and remember that each one has it´s own requirements, some are even more demanding).
This also ties to their other main disadvantage, their price. These headsets tend to be the most expensive of them all. If you also factor the price of buying or upgrading a computer to be able to handle them, well, then they get even costlier.
And before you ask, no, you cannot connect your Standalone headset to your PC to turn into a PC powered one, with ONE exception. The Oculus Quest has two free programs called the Oculus Link and the Oculus Air that lets it connect to your PC, giving it access to all of Steam´s library of games. You can check our article here to see if your PC can to run the Link.
While the previous categories encompass pretty much every commercial VR headset available in the market, there are a few outliers. One of them is the PlayStation VR. The PS VR is a lot like a PC powered headset, but instead of using your computer, it uses the PlayStation 4. It will receive an update soon, but for now, it remains just like it is.
Because of its limited scope, it is the VR headset with the fewer number of titles available and is geared 100% towards gaming. Nonetheless, you still have access to hundreds of games to choose from, and to their credit, they tend to be more polished than what you would find on Google Play or the App Store.
Unfortunately, aside from the games on the VR kit, the Switch doesn´t have any dedicated VR titles. You can use the Labo VR kit to play Smash Bros, Zelda BOTW and Mario Odyssey, but it´s not recommended, as it can be quite disorienting.
There are roughly three types of headsets: mobile, standalone and PC powered.
Mobile or phone VR headsets are glorified grips for your phone that you put in front of your face.
They are the cheapest of the bunch, but also the most limited, offering an entry-level VR experience without having the graphical quality and motion tracking of their competitors.
They are better for enjoying VR videos and experiences rather than games, like the ones you can find here.
Standalone headsets work on their own. They are a step above Mobile in terms of specs and motion tracking, but they tend to have limited (but more curated) selection of apps and games to enjoy.
They are a well-rounded choice, with a fair selection of games and other apps, but not too many of either.
PC powered headsets need to be connected to your computer, as they draw processing power from it, which they use to run much more complex games.
They tend to be the most expensive of the three alternatives, but also the one with the better graphics and tracking. They are made almost exclusively to play videogames and, thanks to Steam VR, they have the wealth of choice to back it up.
Each category has it´s won examples of good and bad headsets, but they can all give you an enjoyable VR experience. Which one is better depends on what type of experience you are looking for.
Now, I´d like to add that the supporting hardware between each headset can work irrelevant of if it´s PC powered, standalone, or a phone headset. This is why the Index controllers work for the Vive, and vice versa.
If you are undecided about which headset to buy, don´t forget to check our comparisons between the Rift and the Go, and the Quest, and the PS VR. We also have a page listing all the best VR headsets here, if you want to browse through the selection. We also have a guide on how to get used to VR motion sickness, if you have a problem with that.