Best virtual reality and augmented reality gear

The science fiction devices and virtual landscapes described in books like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and William Gibson’s Neuromancer are edging closer to reality. With the consumer editions of the Oculus Rift, Gear VR, and soon the HTC Vive, heading out into the wild, Virtual Reality (VR) is about to step up to the next level. Augmented Reality (AR) devices are not far behind. Microsoft’s Hololens has now been released to developers in the US and Canada (US $3,000), and the possibility of a combined VR/AR hybrid device from Magic Leap may be just over the horizon.

We detail the six main VR and AR options. What are their good and bad points? What are the technical specifications? How do they work? Read on.

What is the difference between Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality is about manufactured user environments. Computer generated worlds are created for users to interact with. These worlds are designed to completely separate the user from reality, immersing the user in an artificial creation with the aim of mimicking real sensations and experiences.

Augmented reality, on the other hand, blends real life and virtual reality. Developers overlay or merge images and data onto real world views. As the word “augmented” suggests, your view of the world is improved or added to with virtual media that provides you with a different way to interact or assimilate information. Users can distinguish between the two realities and manipulate virtual objects inside real world views.

Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift consumer release
The Oculus Rift comes with the headset, a media controller, and XBox controller and camera tracking desk stand.

Oculus Rift was the first headset to spark the Virtual Reality revival. The headset was invented by Palmer Luckey and funded initially via a Kickstarter campaign. A self-taught engineer, hacker, and electronics enthusiast, Luckey produced the first prototype when he was 16. Oculus Rift was bought by Facebook in 2014 for a cool 2 billion. Along with lead programmer and VR engineer John Carmack, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and significant development lead time, Oculus has the best chance of making VR a mainstream device.

Display type: OLED
Resolution (pixels): 2160 x 1200
Refresh rate: 90 Hz
Weight:  Less than 380 grams
Audio: Built in
OS: Oculus Home
Connections: HDMI, USB 2.0, USB 3.0
Usage: Wired to a PC
Release: 28 March 2016
Official website: Oculus Rift website

Good points
Best display so far.
Lowest latency.
Built-in audio.
Facebook backing should make research and development easier.

Bad points
No room tracking yet.
Hand controllers not out until the end of 2016.
No Apple Mac support.

HTC Vive

HTC Vive headset consumer release
HTC Vive headset, hand controllers, and laser tracking stations

HTC Vive is a virtual reality headset developed by HTC (the mobile phone company) and the Valve Corporation (a game developer and digital distribution company responsible for Steam). Unlike the Oculus, Vive includes room-sized tracking, allowing people to walk around naturally in a laser scanned area. The Vive also comes with handheld controllers to manipulate and interact with virtual objects. Oculus Rift will have similar controllers (called Oculus Touch), but they are not expected to be released until October 2016.
Display type: OLED
Resolution (pixels): 2160 x 1200
Refresh rate: 90 Hz
Weight:  555 grams
Audio: Can plug in headphones
OS: SteamVR
Connections: HDMI, USB 2.0, USB 3.0
Usage: Wired to PC or Apple Mac
Release: 5 April 2016
Official website: HTC Vive website

Good points
Front facing camera to view real world objects.
Hand controllers included.
Walk naturally in VR with room tracking.
Reportedly more comfortable if you wear glasses.

Bad points
No built in audio.


The augmented reality Hololens development kit
Hololens headset, hand clicker, plugs and carry case

Hololens is Microsoft’s augmented reality headset. You can still see the world around you, but 3D graphics appear over your external world view. The headset tracks your movements, follows your gaze, and transforms what you see by projecting light into your eyes. Hololens appears to work in a  similar way to mysterious Magic Leap, but neither company has revealed precise details. Hand gestures and voice commands are used to interact with your augmented world. Additionally, a palm clicker device has also been recently introduced. The Hololens is equipped with a camera that scans your surroundings and projects objects onto them, all powered by a CPU and GPU, and Microsoft’s Holographic Processing Unit (HPU) – a custom built co-processor for hologram creation.

Display type: Unknown
Resolution (pixels): 1280 x 720
Refresh rate: 60 HZ?
Weight:  579 grams
Audio: Built in
OS: Windows 10
Connections: Micro USB, Wifi
Usage: Wireless
Release: 30 March 2016 Developer only
Official website: Hololens website

Good points
Totally wireless.
Hand gestures.
Voice control.
Windows 10 integration.

Bad points
Narrow viewing field.
Only 5.5-hour battery life.
Low resolution. Although this may not matter depending on way holograms are projected.

Playstation VR

Playstation virtual reality headset
PlayStation VR headset for the PlayStation 4 coming in October 2016

PlayStation VR is a virtual reality gaming head-mounted display created by Sony, designed to work with its PlayStation 4 gaming console. It uses the PlayStation’s “Move” controllers to navigate 3D games and is likely to have lower graphics capabilities compared to Oculus and the HTC Vive. There is talk of a PlayStation 4.5 that will significantly boost the graphics power of the Playstation console, allowing 4K gaming and better VR.

Display type: OLED
Resolution (pixels): 1920 x 1080
Refresh rate: 120hz,90htz
Weight:  610 grams
Audio: Built in
OS: Orbis OS
Connections: HDMI + USB
Usage: Wired to a Playstation
Release: October 2016
Official website: Playstation VR website

Good points
Likely to have a massive game library on launch.
One of the cheapest options.

Bad points
Tied to a proprietary games console.
Powered by a relatively low powered device.
Lower resolution and reportedly mediocre viewing experience.

Gear VR

Samsung's Gear virtual reality headset
Samsung’s Gear VR headset with Samsung Galaxy phone – not included!

Created by Samsung in partnership with Oculus, the Gear VR is a headset that converts Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones into mobile virtual reality headsets. Similar to Sony’s PlayStation VR, the Gear VR experience is limited when compared to Oculus Rift or HTC Vive as it’s reliant on the processing power of a phone. As phone processing power continues to improve, potentially this will be the most popular way to experience VR in the future.

Display type: OLED
Resolution (pixels): 2560 x 1440 Super AMOLED
Refresh rate: 60 Hz
Weight:  310 grams
Audio: Phone audio
OS: Android
Connections: Micro USB, Wifi, Cellular
Usage: Wireless
Release: October 2015
Official website: Gear VR website

Good points
No PC required.
Completely hands-free.
Selection controls on the side of the headset.
Facebook backing should make research and development easier.

Bad points
Works with Samsung Galaxy mobile phones only.
Kills your phone battery.
Reportedly hard to wear with glasses.

Magic Leap

Magic Leap company logo
Magic Leap company logo – hopefully one day they’ll reveal more

Unlike a conventional digital stereo (3D) image that works by projecting two slightly displaced images with different colors and brightness, Magic Leap uses a digital light field. A tiny projector shines light and images into a user’s eyes. This approach requires a higher resolution to work well, which Magic Leap claims to have solved by using what it describes is a “3-D light sculpture,” that is projected onto the viewer’s retina. Not a great deal has been released about the Magic Leap, other than the raw design blueprints. However, it has attracted a massive amount of funding from some leading technology companies, Google in particular. If it lives up to the hype, it could potentially make all other VR/AR devices seem average by comparison.

Display type: Unknown
Resolution (pixels): 3840×2048?
Refresh rate: 60hz?
Weight:   Unknown
Audio: Built in?
OS: Unknown
Connections: Unknown
Usage: Unknown
Release: Unknown (a company representative replied “not too far away” when asked).
Official website: Magic Leap website

Good points
Can reportedly do both VR and AR at the same time.
The headset should smaller compared to the competition.
Has received massive funding, so the demos must be impressive.

Bad points
Could all be hot air?
It sounds like they still need a great deal of money to overcome technological hurdles.
Very little has been released.