Virtual Reality Devices for Consumers

By Paul Mealy

Consumer-grade virtual reality headsets have experienced an explosion of growth since the initial offering of the Oculus Rift DK1 in 2013. A field that had been quiet for decades on the consumer front suddenly experienced a massive jump in growth, inviting numerous tech giants to fund their own headsets to capture the potential of virtual reality.

As of 2018, we’re currently between generations of virtual reality hardware. The first generation of consumer-grade virtual reality headsets has been released, and companies are in the midst of planning their next generation. They’re watching the various trends in the hardware markets to see which direction the winds seem to be blowing in regard to consumer purchasing habits.

The first generation has established baseline expectations in consumers’ minds for quality and price point. Headsets released in the second generation of hardware will have to surpass the current generation in these benchmarks in order for consumers to consider this second generation a success.

You can establish a baseline to help you evaluate the upcoming generation of headsets. If you’re in the market for a virtual reality headset or you’re just interested in comparing existing and future models, this should help you in your evaluations.

When you make decisions based on first-generation hardware and software adoption, keep in mind who the drivers of that market are. Emerging markets with higher price points, such as virtual reality, can often find themselves driven by early adopters who may or may not be indicative of your actual market.

High-end virtual reality devices

The current high-end virtual reality headsets are almost all powered by an external computer. Nearly all the current generations high-end devices offer a room-scale experience, enabling users to move about in physical space and have those movements reflected in the virtual reality world. Nearly all the current generations high-end headsets work with a pair of motion controllers. These devices all feature a wide field of view (FOV) and generally very high-resolution displays. Most of these first-generation devices are tethered via cable to the computer powering them.

The high end is made up of headsets such as the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Windows Mixed Reality headsets, and, to a lesser extent, the PlayStation VR. The PlayStation VR is a bit of an outlier because it doesn’t offer the same room-scale experience of the other headsets. However, it does offer a more premium virtual reality experience than many of the mid-tier choices.

If you’re serious about getting a premium virtual reality consumption experience that includes the best games and the highest-end graphics and applications, you’ll likely want one of the headsets that fall into the high-end range. The bigger question may be whether to get a model from this generation or hold out for the next generation of high-end devices, all of which come with their own set of notable improvements on current-generation devices.

Look below to see the first-generation HTC Vive and its associated controllers and “lighthouse” sensors.

HTC Vive virtual reality
Courtesy of HTC Vive
HTC Vive, controllers, and sensors.

Mid-tier virtual reality devices

The Google Daydream and Gear VR are the main serious mid-tier competitors for the first generation of headset. Both require an Android device with decent specs in order to run their virtual reality experience. Their FOV is slightly less than that of the higher-end headsets, and they have a slower refresh rate, so the screen images are refreshed fewer times per second.

Both come with a single motion controller that offers three degrees of freedom of movement, loosely tracking (but not fully tracking) the controller’s movement in space. Neither offers any room-scale experience or tracks the user’s position outside of head rotation and orientation.

Three degrees of freedom (3DoF) in relation to virtual reality headset controllers typically means the controller has rotational tracking only. It’s essentially paired to the position of your headset. Unlike with the higher-end headsets such as the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, if you were to leave your controller on the floor and walk away from it while wearing these 3DoF headsets, the controller wouldn’t retain its position in 3D space.

If you’re interested in exploring simple virtual reality executions, you have an existing supported Android device, and you aren’t willing to spend what it costs to get a high-end device, these middle-tier devices can be a good entry-point experience for virtual reality consumption. Your consumption options will be more limited in this middle tier, but plenty of applications are targeted toward this level of experience.

This image shows the first-generation Google Daydream along with its motion controller.

Google Daydream virtual reality
Google Daydream and controller.

Low-end virtual reality devices

The current low end of the virtual reality headset market is occupied by Google Cardboard and its variants. Like the mid-tier virtual reality headsets, Google Cardboard experiences are all powered by a separate mobile device, such as a smartphone. Unlike with the mid-tier experiences, however, Google Cardboard experiences can run on many different mobile devices including lower-end ones.

Any manufacturer can produce a Google Cardboard viewer by following the Cardboard specs that Google provides. This flexibility has led to the existence of a multitude of form factors. The only things these devices have in common are that they’re all powered via a separate mobile device, they all have similar lenses, and almost all rely on a single, on-headset button for any interaction within the virtual world. The limited interaction that Google Cardboard offers limits it to being little more than a virtual reality “viewer,” offering users a far more passive consumption experience than the mid-tier and high-end headsets.

Google Cardboard may be a good entry point if you have little more than a passing interest in virtual reality, you don’t have an Android device, and you aren’t willing to invest in a more immersive experience. Although Cardboard is popular for its low cost, the virtual reality experience it delivers pales in comparison to either the higher-end or mid-tier experiences. Your consumption choices will be limited at this level. The devices themselves limit what can be run in Google Cardboard, and many content creators prefer to build for higher-level experiences.

The image below Mattel’s View-Master, a Google Cardboard–powered update of its classic toy.

Mattel Google Cardboard Virtual Reality
Mattel’s Google Cardboard–powered View-Master.

There is a market for nearly any type of virtual reality headset. What Cardboard may lack in features, it may make up for in price or availability. Providing a classroom of elementary-school students a Google Cardboard experience may be far more palatable than providing them all high-end headsets. Cardboard’s experience may not be able to match the immersiveness of high-end headsets, but you may still find Google Cardboard is the best fit for your particular consumption needs.