As I noted in last week's article about the Metaverse, 2016 has been a pivotal year for Virtual Reality technology. No fewer than three VR headsets have debuted this year, or are about to: Facebook’s Oculus Rift came out in March, the HTC Vive in April, and Sony’s Playstation VR will launch in October. But for all that, it's still early days in the evolution of VR. Those three headsets are all first generation, and hence flawed. There also isn't a great deal to do with the headsets at this time.
There are mobile VR viewers as well, which are cheaper and easier to use. Samsung Gear VR is a pair of goggles that works with Android smartphones, while Google Cardboard is (literally) a pair of cardboard VR glasses. But as CNET pointed out, those products lack "the positional awareness of PC-based VR rigs." In short, the mobile viewers are much less immersive. So I'm focusing on the headsets only in this post.
If we're talking VR headsets then, the question is: which is better, Oculus Rift or HTC Vive?
Rift vs. Vive
CNET's review in May came out on the side of the Vive, but their ultimate recommendation was to purchase neither:
Honestly, unless you love being on the bleeding edge of awesome tech, we wouldn't buy either Rift or Vive right now. There's not a whole heck of a lot to play or do in VR quite yet, and it's clear that all of this technology will get better quickly.
Indeed, one of the two headsets isn't even a complete VR solution, because touch controllers for Oculus have yet to be released. They're expected by end of this year, but the lack of touch means that you cannot use your hands in VR with the Rift. The Vive, on the other hand, is markedly less comfortable to wear than the Rift. So they both have major flaws.
Venerable tech blog Ars Technica recommends to "just wait" as well, since both the Rift and Vive are expensive first generation devices that are likely to be obsolete in a year or so.
Tech blog Wareable's reviews of the two headsets were also underwhelming. "Oculus Rift is missing key ingredients to make it a fully realized VR experience," it noted at the end of June. In particular, Wareable complained that "you can't walk in VR, there's still an unknown date for Touch controllers and it simply isn't as immersive [as the Vive] when playing games."
So the general consensus is that while both the Rift and the Vive are massive steps forward for VR, it's probably best to wait for the second generation of those products (not to mention wait and see how Sony's headset stacks up).
Skipping Version 1
Now, a confession: I don't use either the Rift or Vive currently. I ordered an Oculus Rift when it first went on sale in January, but ended up selling it. Although I was curious to test it out, I couldn't justify the extra few thousand dollars I would need to shell out to buy a Windows PC capable of pairing with the Rift. I'm a Mac guy and the Oculus Rift doesn't work on Mac computers. Also, crucially, I'm not a gamer. There isn't much else to do with VR headsets currently than play games. So I concluded that the Oculus Rift would likely become an expensive white elephant in my home, after I'd finished testing it. Hence I on-sold it on TradeMe, New Zealand's version of eBay.
For me, consumer VR headsets won't get truly interesting until we can do more than play games with them. As Wareable noted, in 2016 the only VR content available is "YouTube, horror, shooters, 2D movies, Ikea." So, nothing revolutionary. Once I can enjoy VR movies, or watch an NBA basketball game in VR, or socialize with friends in a VR version of Facebook (or Doppel!), that's when VR will hit its potential for me. With any luck we may start to see some of this happen next year; see my earlier post on that topic.
Despite rejecting the current generation of VR headsets, I'm incredibly excited about their future potential. Especially once we start to get compelling non-gaming software (which is when I intend to buy a headset). But we're going to have to wait a while for that to happen. As for completely immersive virtual worlds that mix seamlessly with the physical world, according to my novel Presence we'll have to wait thirty-five years for that!
Don't get me wrong, I still think the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are incredible innovations. Future generations will look back on 2016 as the year that kickstarted (pun intended in the case of Oculus) Virtual Reality. But... I'll be waiting for version 2 before buying a VR headset. I'll leave v1 to the gamers!
Presence, my science fiction novel about the future of VR, is now available on Amazon.