The age of virtual reality is upon us (again) with a torrent of devices and content launching throughout 2016. There has been a buzz around virtual reality (VR) for the past few years. Some of this has come from the lengthy development of devices like Oculus Rift, but also through a growing interest in what we'll be able to get VR to do in the modern era.
The idea of VR isn't new. It's been circulating in the tech space for a number of years, but recently, the technology has broken through some of the long-standing barriers. Enabling access has helped, with devices like Google's Cardboard opening the door for anyone with a smartphone, right up to demonstrating what a fully-fledged premium system likeHTC Vive will be capable of. We now have the power in home computers for lifelike virtual environments and this makes it a much more exciting time for VR.
So, without further ado, we've listed some of the top VR systems available. Their prices range dramatically, and some haven't actually been officially launched yet, but they're all worth being aware of, as you'll be seeing a lot more of VR in 2016.
Oculus Rift has probably commanded more headlines than any other VR system. First launched as a Kickstarter project and then acquired by Facebook, Oculus Rift is one of the most exciting VR systems you'll find.
The system comprises a headset that's loaded with sensors, offering a display for each eye and integrated headphones. It comes with a camera to add more movement detection information and initially ships with an Xbox One controller prior to bespoke Oculus Touch controllers launching later in 2016. You will also need a high-spec PC to run Oculus Rift, however, and this isn't included in the £500 asking price for the kit.
The result is a canny VR system and, from what we've experienced so far, one that's capable of creating some amazing VR worlds and experiences. It's now shipping to those who originally pre-ordered, although the demand means you'll be waiting until at least August if you order now. Oculus Rift is definitely in the premium VR category.
Like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive is a full system VR experience that requires a powerful PC to run. It too is now available, but while there were some shipping delays, wait time is less than its direct rival.
HTC Vive is different from other VR systems because it gives you freedom to roam around a room. While other systems will allow you some movement, HTC Vive uses IR sensors mounted on walls to map your location in the physical space, integrating this into the virtual space. That allows for freedom of movement other systems currently don't offer. The downside is that you'll also need a big enough play space to use it in that fashion.
The headset integrates a range of sensors, presenting the slick visuals to your eyes and you have to wear additional headphones to complete the picture. There are bespoke Vive hand controllers and their locations are also mapped within the 3D space, offering plenty of versatility when it comes to immersion and interactivity.
We've experienced a wide range of different environments within HTCVive, from climbing Everest to maintenance of robots in a Portal-style setting and we've been blown away. However, setting the device up is tricky, so sensor placement is paramount. The HTC Vive is also the costliest option at £689 in the UK, $799 in the US.
Previously known as Project Morpheus, this headset has been rechristened PlayStation VR - somewhat fitting considering it is not PC but PlayStation 4 driven.
Rather than presenting a complete VR system, PS VR is an accessory for the PS4 console, meaning it will be less costly to own than something like Oculus Rift or HTC Vive when it arrives on 13 October 2016.
The headset itself will be just £349 ($399) - a lot less than equivalent rivals - and the fact that the console is less pricey than a high-endgaming PC keeps costs down further.
PlayStation VR uses the same technologies as the others, although its screen resolution is lower than those used by HTC and Oculus. It tracks movement of your head and uses the PlayStation Camera, in combination with your regular PS4 controller or PlayStation Move motion controls, to present the VR experience. This is an extension of your PS4, which is likely to see it as an easy VR choice for many.
There will also be a full line-up of content available from launch in October, including 50 game titles which are all full optimised for VR. PlayStation VR Worlds has several mini-games and experiences, including the London Heist segments we've previously played. Other games will also include RIGS and The Playroom VR.
PlayStation VR removes plenty of barriers to virtual reality because it's an accessory to an existing platform. We expect to hear even more as the year unfolds. PlayStation VR is going to bring immersive gaming to your existing console.
The Sulon Q VR headset was unveiled during GDC 2016 in San Francisco and it could be a big competitor to Oculus Rift and HTC Vive in that it runs on a Windows 10 PC architecture. Unlike those headsets though, it doesn't need a high-end PC to run and is completely "tether-free".
Instead it has the processing power built into the device, using AMD technologies to run "console-quality" games and applications, but without any wires needed to connect it to a separate box.
In addition to virtual reality uses, there are lenses on the headset that enable the user to use augmented reality applications too, in a similar way to the Microsoft HoloLens we describe below. These overlay computer graphics onto real-world objects.
There are earbuds built-in that provide spatial 3D audio and embedded noise-cancelling microphones enable voice communication without needing a separate mic add-on.
It all sounds good but we're yet to see the headset in action even though we were previously told "spring". The price is also unannounced as yet, and it could turn out to be rather pricey.
Samsung Gear VR
Samsung was one of the early movers on VR, launching the Gear VRheadset, co-developed with Oculus, and designed to support a smartphone, rather than needing a connection to a PC or console.
There have been a couple of versions of Gear VR, supporting a number of different smartphone models from Samsung, with the handsets neatly sliding into the tray at the front. Internally there are lenses to split the display between your eyes and with Samsung's latest devices offering a high resolution display, this translates into slick visuals.
Samsung Gear VR has been used in a number of commercial settings, such car showrooms, but with Samsung offering a range of content from Oculus, it's an easy option for those with a Samsung handset.
Gear VR is available for around £100, and there's an optional controller too, which you can get for about £70. You'll need to make sure it's going to fit your chosen Samsung smartphone, however, with the newly launched Galaxy S7 and S7 edge devices claimed to be best. Gear VR opens the door to mobile devices, but you'll need to supply the Samsung smartphone.