All the pieces you want to know to wrap your head round VR

Two years and five iterations of the Oculus Rift later, it’s finally time to start writing about virtual reality as a thing that’s happening, not something that will happen. Less than six months from now the first of the heavy hitter consumer-grade virtual reality sets will hit market—Valve and HTC’s Vive headset—and a few months after that we’ll see the Rift finally do the same.

With that in mind, we thought it was high-time to get back to basics. What is virtual reality? What can you realistically do with it? And for that matter, what’s the difference between augmented reality and virtual reality? What kind of PC will you need to partake? Do you even need a PC at all?

And the most important question: How much is this going to cost?

You’ll find answers to all that and more in this, our beginner’s crash course in virtual reality.

Seriously, what is virtual reality?

There are a couple ways we can tackle this question. If we go the pie-in-the-sky route, virtual reality’s akin to Star Trek’s Holodeck or the Matrix—a.k.a. a completely virtual environment that you can nevertheless walk around in and interact with.

In the modern era? Well, we’re not quite to the point of transforming energy into matter at will. Current virtual reality (VR) technology is more like strapping a screen to your face. The image is then rendered in stereoscopic 3D and viewed through fancy lenses, tricking you into believing you’re looking at a real environment and not a screen mere inches from your eyes.

Virtual reality headsets are loaded with gyroscopes and other sensors to track your movements.

The effect is aided by a number of sensors in and/or around the device—gyroscopes, infrared dots, et cetera. These are tracked, allowing what you’re looking at to react when you turn your head, nod, or even lean forward.

Combine photorealistic graphics (or 3D video) with this ability to move around in the virtual space and you’re already pretty damn close to achieving what VR experts term “Presence”—a feeling that you’re actually in the virtual world instead of standing awkwardly in the living room with a headset on. How powerful can the effect be? During an Oculus demo last year an alien waved its hand at me and I instinctively waved my hand back, even though that made absolutely no sense and the “alien” couldn’t see it, nor care.

vr guy f8 2015

This is not me waving at a VR alien.

Right now the primary players in VR hardware are Oculus and Valve/HTC, though there are a number of other independents like Razer and Starbreeze making a stab at the market.

Augmented Reality versus Virtual Reality

Okay, so now we know a bit about virtual reality. What, then, is “augmented reality”? Is that like a parallel universe?

Not quite. Augmented reality is a bit more complex than virtual reality in that it melds computer graphics with the real world. In other words, your view of the world isn’t so much obstructed by an AR headset as it is enhanced.

For an early (and very simplistic) example, let’s talk Google Glass. All Glass did was stick a miniature display in the top-right corner of your field of view. You could walk around like normal, glance up, and see the time or a picture or whatever “floating” in the air above you.

Of course it wasn’t actually floating there—your eye just perceives Glass’s display that way.

Google Glass

Google Glass.

And Glass wasn’t even a great rendition of AR, because it was made to hide out in the corner of your vision. Newer AR headsets are focused more on immersion, sitting smack in the middle of your field of view.

Now, the potential for AR is incredibly high—especially for day-to-day life. For instance, my favorite demo so far came by way of Microsoft’s HoloLens kit and was essentially a step-by-step walkthrough on how to change out a lightswitch without electrocuting yourself. You can easily envision a world where people are taught to play an instrument, change their oil, brew beer, or any number of skilled tasks by using AR.

On the other hand, I’ve also written extensively about how I don’t think AR is particularly interesting for traditional linear-storyline gaming purposes—a viewpoint I stand by. I’ve now played games on three different AR headsets and while it’s fun messing around in a sandbox, it’s not the type of game I tend to enjoy best. But for something like Minecraft? It works fine.

microsoft hololens family room rgb

A Microsoft promotional image that captures the feel of using HoloLens to play Minecraft in virtual reality (though the field of view is much more narrow through the actual headset).

The other problem is the technology itself. AR headsets are nowhere near as mature as VR headsets, and we’re probably looking at another five to ten years before they get to the point where the tech is slim and powerful enough to enter mainstream use.

But we’re getting there! The main players in the AR field are Microsoft’s HoloLens set (which I played with at E3) and CastAR, which was made by some ex-Valve employees.

Press my buttons

Back to VR. There are basically four main categories of input devices, listed here from worst to best: Mouse and keyboard, gamepad, specialist controls (i.e. flight sticks), and motion controls.

Continue to the next page for information on VR control options and much, much more.

Mouse and keyboard: I know it hurts, PC faithful. It hurts to rank the controller above the mouse and keyboard. I promise this will be the only time.

But it’s for good reason. Here’s an experiment you can try at home: Put on a blindfold and try to use your mouse and keyboard. And if you think that’s not too bad—maybe you touch-type 100+ words per minute—try sitting back in your chair, reciting the alphabet, then reaching your hands out again to grab your mouse and keyboard.

Congrats, you now sort of understand what it’s like to use the Oculus Rift with a mouse and keyboard—to say nothing of the fact that having your hands on your desk at all times limits your movement and thus limits your interaction with a VR environment.

Gamepad: The compromise most people use is the ol’ Xbox 360 gamepad. At this point it’s safe to assume a hefty portion of PC gaming enthusiasts own one, and for VR, it’s a bit easier to use than a mouse and keyboard. There are fewer buttons to worry about, the buttons are more distinctive, and you can sit back from your desk with the controller in your lap.

Xbox One controller

Microsoft’s Xbox One gamepad will be the default controller that comes bundled with the Oculus Rift.

This solution is so common in modern VR that Oculus partnered with Microsoft—when the Consumer Rift launches next year, it will come with an Xbox One controller.

It’s a half-measure though. It’s still not real on the same level as some other control schemes.

Specialist controls: Which brings us to this category, encompassing everything from racing wheels to flight sticks to that model spaceship cockpit you built in your garage.

Flight sticks, et al aren’t perfect but they do bring you a measure closer to “real” controls. Playing Elite: Dangerous on the PC for instance, the best way to fly in VR is to pick up a HOTAS (hand on throttle and stick) system because it sort of mimics the controls you’ll see in the virtual cockpit.

flight stick Mace Ojala/Creative Commons

VR will give you a new excuse to bust out a flight stick beyond scratching that nostalgic Flight Simulator itch.

The drawback? Specialist controls are pretty much only useful in cockpit games. There are quite a few of those because the Rift is a stationary (and, until recently, seated) platform, but eventually you’ll probably want to do something with your VR headset outside of “Drive a car” or “Pilot a mech” or “Fly a plane/spaceship.”

Motion controls: The last, and most complicated, category is motion controls. This is a catch-all category—some of the options here are essentially retooled controllers, while others are full-body tracking.

At the lower end are “wands.” Both Oculus and Valve have wand solutions (as well as Sony’s console-only Project Morpheus). This is basically a glorified controller, but retrofitted for VR. If you’ve ever played the Nintendo Wii, you’ll understand the basic concept—you’re holding a controller in each hand.

These controllers are then tracked, providing one-to-one motion in a VR environment. Put simply, you can use your hands in VR. Sort of. Valve’s wands, as of GDC, had only a single button governing whether your hands were opened or closed. Oculus’s version, dubbed Touch, is a bit more sophisticated—but not by much.

Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift being used with optional Touch VR controllers.

It’s enough, though. This is by far the best commercially-viable option at the moment. The major problem is that it seems only Valve will include wands in the basic kit—Oculus is content with people using an Xbox controller for now. That’s a shame because adding hand-tracking into VR is enough to tip you close to the fabled “Presence,” even though the ultimate goal is full-body tracking.

For the latter, we turn to the longstanding love/hate relationship with Microsoft’s Kinect. Yes, the Kinect is janky. Yes, even the second generation. It’s just not a great piece of hardware, especially in the ways Microsoft originally intended.

It is, however, a fantastic hobbyist tool. Plenty of VR enthusiasts have hacked together Kinect games for the Rift, allowing the device to “see” the player and track not just hands but every part of the body. This lets you jump, duck, kick, elbow, and all sorts of other verbs that can’t be accomplished solely with hand- and head-tracking.

There’s also a niche push for omnidirectional treadmills. One of the big problems in VR is you’re confined to a single space. The omnidirectional treadmill (such as the $700 Virtuix Omni) allows you to “walk” in virtual reality. There’s plenty of potential here, but it’s hard to know whether these devices will take off—because they take up quite a bit of space, because they’re expensive, and because people are lazy.

For now, all you really need to know is this: Gamepads work, but hand-tracking is your best bet. That’s the only one you’re likely to buy anyway, so there’s no need to worry yourself with the Kinect or an omnidirectional treadmill.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the primary use for virtual reality at the moment is gaming. That’s not too surprising—most games are already built from entirely virtual environments, so it’s relatively easy to translate the experience to a VR headset (though games built solely to take advantage of VR’s unique capabilities are obviously best).

That being said, there are quite a few practical non-gaming uses for VR. Oculus has seen Rifts used in healthcare, in architecture, in prototyping, in film, et cetera.

Film is a particularly hot-button subject. The first “film” for VR, Zero Point, released on Steam last year, and it’s just the first of many. Samsung’s mobile GearVR platform has multiple 360-degree video apps allowing you to experience a helicopter tour of Iceland, follow snowboarders down a mountain, and much (much) more. Google even dedicated time to showing off its new 360-degree camera system during Google I/O this year.

This is a potentially huge industry—one that could rival games on VR headsets.

I heard something about Facebook…

There’s also the Facebook question. Last year Facebook bought Oculus—a move that was…well, controversial to say the least. For now it seems like Facebook’s been an ideal partner, providing money and support without tampering with Oculus’s hardware or software.

However, there’s always the possibility something will happen down the line—Mark Zuckerberg’s made it clear he thinks the Rift and virtual reality have huge potential in terms of social connectivity. And he’s not wrong. Anyone who’s read Neuromancer knows there’s potentially something interesting to be garnered from people “living” in virtual spaces.

But that’s for future generations of VR. For now, Facebook seems content to let the Rift be the multimedia device it was originally planned to be.

Be prepared

Okay, so maybe (hopefully) you’ve read all this and you’re like, “Wow this virtual reality thing sounds really cool and I’d like to get in on this. Or at least try it.”

Continue to the final page for information about technical requirements and expected pricing for virtual reality headsets and the gear needed to run them.

If you already own a high-end gaming PC, the good news is you’re probably ready to go. The recommended specs for the Rift are as follows:

  • Nvidia GTX 970/Radeon R9 290
  • Intel i5-4590
  • 8GB of RAM

That’s actually surprisingly reasonable, considering what the Rift is doing. Most people (not necessarily you, but most) are still playing games on a 1920×1080 (a.k.a. 1080p) monitor at 60 frames per second. The Rift/Vive’s screens run at a total resolution of 2160×1200 at 90 frames per second.

And this time, the PC crowd’s obsession with framerate is actually for a very good reason: So you don’t get sick. One of the big complaints about early Rift models was motion sickness. However, this is a problem that mostly goes away when you raise the refresh rate. Oculus’s John Carmack has said he’d like to hit 120Hz in the future, but 90Hz was a baseline.

As for the Vive, we don’t know what the recommended PC specs are yet—but I’d expect them to be close (if not totally in line) with Oculus’s.

Do I even need a PC?

A quick tangent: You could go the mobile VR route. Last year Samsung and Oculus partnered to release the GearVR, which uses the Galaxy Note 4 for processing power and its display. Then they released an updated version this year for the Galaxy S6.

gear vr demo 4 Oculus VR

Samsung’s GearVR, with front plate removed to reveal the Galaxy Note 4 underneath.

There are pros and cons to this approach though. The major pro is that there are no wires attached. You can spin around in a chair for hours and never get tangled. And GearVR runs quite well—better than you’d probably expect, considering it’s phone hardware.

The downside: It’s expensive. Both the Note 4 and S6 run about $600 on their own, and then you need to pay another $200 for the GearVR headset itself. And there’s no guarantee how long your particular GearVR model will stay relevant—phone hardware iterates so quickly, the device could be outdated next year (or six months down the line, even). With a computer, you can always upgrade the internals.

Okay, here’s my wallet

There’s no getting around it: Virtual reality is an expensive hobby—even more so if you’re trying to get your computer up to snuff.

The main issue is we still don’t know actual prices on a lot of this stuff. Valve and Oculus are playing the positioning game, waiting to see who flinches first. But we can maybe make some estimates based on past statements and comparable hardware.

Thus, we can expect the Rift headset to cost about $350 to 400. That’s both in line with the cost of the first two development kits and Oculus’s past spitballing. That figure would include the headset itself, an Xbox One controller, and the position-tracking sensor.

htc vive

The SteamVR-powered HTC Vive prototype uses two base stations to allow you to wander your environment physically.

Oculus Touch is a bit more difficult to pin down, but we can make an estimate based on the price of the since-discontinued Razer Hydra motion controller, which ran for $140. I’d expect Touch to come in around the same price point (or less, if Oculus hopes to sell more units and incentivize development).

So we’re up to about $500-550 for the full Rift experience, sans PC itself. The Vive is pretty similar, although you have to factor in the two Lighthouse base stations Valve uses for position tracking (instead of the Oculus’s single sensor). Let’s say $600 for the HTC Vive?

Yeah, it’s expensive. And those are just my own estimated figures—we could be looking at $700 or even $800 entry pricing on release, though the higher the price goes the fewer units will sell, and Oculus desperately needs units to sell in order to convince the public that VR is a viable field this time around.

And that doesn’t include the cost of a gaming PC, as I mentioned. For the Oculus’s recommended specs you’re probably looking at a machine in the $800-900 range (depending on whether you already have a Windows license, a monitor, et cetera).

Bottom line

oculus look up Oculus Story Studio

Even with that pricing hurdle, I’ll be damned if virtual reality isn’t exhilarating. I’ve been playing games for pretty much my entire life, and I don’t think there’s been a technology this exciting since we made the 2D/3D switch in the ‘90s. Virtual reality has the potential to revolutionize the way we play, especially as it gets more sophisticated.

And virtual reality could revolutionize not just the way we play, but the way we chat with friends, the way we experience films, the way we hold business meetings and conceptualize “the office.” Virtual reality could be the next big thing.

The question is whether everyday people—people like you and me—will be interested in trying it.

Read our entire guide and still have questions? Feel free to leave a comment or hit me on Twitter and I’d be happy to answer whatever you’re wondering.

Hayden writes about games for PCWorld and doubles as the resident Zork enthusiast.

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