Layman’s Tech: a guide to new gadgets, products, and fun—for those who don’t have a degree in computer science.
These days, it seems as though VR headsets are raining from the sky at the rate of a biblical plague—minus Apple’s very notable absence in the space, of course. So, which headset do you choose? Obviously, each product’s website will give you their own sales pitch, describe their product with top marks, and practically guarantee it is the best thing since the Rapid Ramen Cooker. Amazon-type site reviews are slightly more reliable, but only for a single product.
Below, I’ll go compare three different headsets, each drastically different in price. To keep things equal between the sets, we won’t delve into gaming in VR. As you read below, imagine your only goal is to watch a video on the device. Maybe that is your only goal (I don’t know you that well). Suffice it to say, such a simple operation is very different among all of these.
Up first, the VR One Plus by Zeiss.
This headset is not the cheapest of the three, per se, but it has the ability to be the cheapest operating package. Coming in at just $129, it is a common item at many big box retailers. If you’re in need of a go-to for a fun weekend with the family, you’re nearly guaranteed to find this option locally.
At first glance, it’s not the most chic rig on the market. The white shell helps it stand out from many of the completely-black products on shelves, but upon touching it, it’s easy to tell this white plastic will yellow quickly.
The headset is simply an apparatus to hold a phone, similar in function as Google Cardboard. In comparison, though, this has comfortable head straps and a face cushion, so extended use is comfortable and leaves your hands free to do the dishes or walk the dog. Additionally, the head straps adjust easily, so switching from one user to another is quick and nearly painless so long as your three-year-old niece, Sasha, doesn’t find great humor in placing your hair on the velcro.
To use the set, simply grab your phone (or any smartphone) and find a 360 video. Making sure the video is set for VR (YouTube has a small icon on the bottom right looking like Google Cardboard), stick your phone into the included tray. The tray seems to adjust for just about all smartphone sizes (disclaimer: I didn’t buy all smartphones to try this), and a smartly placed pad helps keep everything secure. Hit play, slide the tray back on into the headset, and start viewing.
The tray is easy to insert and remove when empty. With the added weight of a phone, it becomes a bit too easy to remove, though. Tilting your head drastically to one side, or even just holding the headset off-kilter can cause the tray to shift. It is easily re-situated but can be a bit of a nuisance when trying to share an active video with another viewer.
Aside from the tray, no additional buttons or knobs adorn this set. From having used other sets, I know this means there is no adjusting the lenses. As a person who only uses cheater glasses when needed, this is not a downfall for me — adjusting the lenses on other headsets doesn’t typically provide a notable difference. I can’t accurately say whether this makes a huge difference for those who wear glasses regularly, so I won’t try.
One of the major drawbacks accompanying this type of headset is the requirement to hit play in advance. Inevitably, you will miss the beginning moments of the video. Plus, once the videos are put into 360 mode, the “play” icon is small and more challenging to hit on the first try. This is a minor inconvenience when it comes to affordable and accessible VR, though.
Finally, as with Google Cardboard, this headset only allows you to view photos and videos. I’ve heard this put as being restricted to three degrees of freedom (3DOF) when VR “should allow” for six degrees of freedom (6DOF). In essence, you’re not really able to explore areas or do any sort of gaming, but if you’re just looking to Snapchat your Nanna experiencing the world’s steepest roller coaster ride after Sunday brunch, this might be the perfect option for you.
Let’s take a short moment to describe 3DOF and 6DOF. Imagine for a moment you are on one of those intimidating X, Y, Z axises relentlessly drilled into your head in Freshman Geometry. On that graph, you have three lines. One goes up and down, another goes from left to right, and another goes front to back. If you were to sit stationary where the lines converge, viewing your surroundings from that spot, you get three degrees of freedom. Six degrees of freedom, however, allows you to explore those spaces. Instead of looking up or down, left or right, backward or forward, you can physically move around on those axises. This is a common function in many VR programs and VR gaming.
Next up is the Gear VR (2016) by Oculus.
To be clear, this is not the most recent model, but it is only a handful of months old and functions in mainly the same ways as the newest version. At an original purchase price of just $99, this is the cheapest headset I’m reviewing today. This headset comes with a catch, though: you have to use one of their approved Samsung phones. In the same way that I am not a computer developer, I am equally inept at reading cell phone contracts. So, you can figure out for yourself, should you so choose, how much a Samsung phone would cost in your world. A safe range for an unlocked version, however, would be around $700-$900. Together, that makes this headset a nearly $1000 package.
Thankfully, Samsung seems to have gotten that exploding phone thing under control. I don’t know about you, but the last thing I thought about during the period of time when their phones were so dangerous they were banned on airplanes was taking one and strapping it to my face. Today’s version of Russian roulette?
At first glance, color aside, the Gear VR and the VR One Plus look very similar. The Gear VR is a bit wider and boxier, and close inspection shows knobs and buttons. It has the same cushioned headrest, and the head straps are virtually identical.
Looking at the application for attaching the phone, however, proves to be more complicated. One side allows you to move a bracket to fit different Samsung phones, while the other attaches to the charger port on the phone you’ve chosen to use. Adjusting for the size is not as easy or graceful as I’m sure Samsung would have hoped. I would guess that after repeated use, this becomes easier, but I also assume I’ll be using the same phone most of the time, so adjustments won’t be terribly necessary.
The port side seems flimsy and scary. You have to flip it up, attach your phone, and then slam it back down — all while the only thing holding on to your phone is the port. It wobbles a bit, and I would suggest doing this while standing over a very close surface, such as a table. I don’t claim to be the most coordinated person on earth (I’ll never be going to the knife-juggling olympics), but when setting up VR requires this much concentrated coordination, I’m already a bit let down. Additionally, after repeated use, the port becomes more unstable. The setup becomes less reliable, with videos either cutting out midstream or not getting the signal altogether.
Using the Gear VR is much more interactive than the VR One Plus, though. Once you’ve unlocked your phone (a creepy mechanical woman yells at you if you don’t) and hooked it up to your set, the Oculus App (which you must download) triggers. With the headset on, all of your controls are through the headset. Suddenly, the buttons and knobs become functional, and the combination of your eyes and a touchpad become your mouse.
As a side note: this is the only VR headset I’ve used where the focus dial actually shows me an obvious difference between levels. It’s easy and lovely.
There are some additional steps needed, now. You have to create accounts, and set up you virtual areas (a living room in which I’d like to spend all of my time) in the same way you’d initially set up your computer’s desktop. Most of these steps are fairly simple for anyone who’s done much on a smartphone. There’s added time here, so it’s not quite as immediately gratifying as the VR One Plus, but the benefits of future organization for finding your videos/pictures are obvious.
A downside? Well, it’s a headset (and app) run by Oculus. In the VR space, there are two main players right now: Facebook and Google. Oculus partners with Facebook, so they, very candidly and effectively, take the Google-owned YouTube off the list of available sites. There are hacks to get around this — none of which I will list here — but they are rather tedious. Even more importantly, the point of this blog is to let you know what you can or can’t do on a headset. Oculus does not want you to view YouTube videos on their products, so they make it exceptionally difficult.
YouTube aside, there is still plenty to see on the Gear VR. You can download game apps, watch videos on their servers, or load your own onto your phone. There are fairly simple instructions included with the headset about how you would do this, but make sure to follow them precisely. You are not able to explore your phone’s photos on this set, so you must create specific folders in which to place the ones you want to view in VR. I would love to see this go to a cloud-based service, since videos and photos take up quite a bit of space on a phone. Keeping a large digital library on such a memory-limited device will only work well for a small bit of time.
Onto today’s heavy-hitter: the Oculus Rift (by, you guessed it, Oculus)
I will start by saying this particular headset, given its ability in the VR space, warrants its own review. I will also say I’d have preferred for number three on this list to have been a Vive. Having two Oculus products isn’t quite as diverse as I desired, but the capabilities between the these two should be sufficient for today’s goals.
The Oculus Rift is quite the setup. Be prepared for chord tangles and you may want to dedicate a single outlet to this contraption. The headset itself cost $599.99 at the time of purchase. This gets you a stunningly-packaged VR set. It comes complete with a controller (in my case, it’s an Xbox), a remote, a tracker/sensor, a headset, and a cord long enough to span the entire Autobahn. Together, these items get you exactly nowhere.
To actually use the headset and accessories, you’ll need a computer. For gaming or extended use, a high-powered computer is preferable. In all honesty, Oculus never claimed this was a self-contained system. They even go so far as to provide computer recommendations for optimal use of their setups. You’ll notice the one I’m showing uses a laptop for portability, but additional accessories (such as a cooling tilt table) were needed for maximum efficiency.
We can get into all of that at a later date. For now, let’s look at the basic setup and usability of the overall contraption for the purposes of watching a video. While the previous Oculus rig already had me set up profiles and the such, more is now needed on the Rift. The initial setup (figuring out where cords go, buying extenders so they actually hit their ports, and additional profile administration) took hours.
This Oculus works in a similar fashion to the previous, though. Once hooked up correctly, simply placing the set on my head triggers the program to open. Inside my digital living room, I have even more options than I was offered on my Samsung rig (although, there’s still no cranky cat). I am also more apt to download apps and programs, as I am less fearful of running out of storage space. Downloading takes quite a bit of time; prep for that. The updates to these are frequent and incessant.
As with the previous Oculus set, I am unable to view YouTube videos. Again, I have options to get around this, but they are even more tedious, time consuming, and costly on the Rift.
With Gear VR, I was able to put my own videos into a folder for viewing. This headset claims the same is possible (in a different folder, so be mindful of the directions), but I have yet to get that to work. While the online directions on Oculus’s site were clear and simple (only four steps, I believe), no videos are watchable via their programs just yet.
After countless hours (and actually pulling in someone going to school for computer science — thanks, Jaron!) I was at a loss; I contacted Oculus directly. Their response time was very prompt and quite courteous. However, it’s the same game as with most tech support: write the same problem out three times in three different ways to three different people, be directed to the same four steps over and over, and the resolution has yet to come. I will say, they seemed very dedicated to helping me solve the issue. I’ve no doubt this is an issue they want solved, and they are actively working at finding a solution—after all, they are invested in the future of this product—but for the time being, my videos were held hostage.
Perhaps at a later date, I will go into how I got everything working (along with the help of my computer-science pal). It’s a complicated path, and it involved purchasing three additional apps which all need to work together, update together, and connect to the internet for viewing a video on a hard drive. I hardly have the patience to write the steps now, and I would venture that if you’re still reading to this point, you could use a break as well.
It’s clear the manufacturers of each set has a different clientele in mind. Comparing apples to clown-costumed pigeons hardly seems fair, but knowing which type of rig is best for you is important.
- VR One Plus: great for the plop and go. If you just want to view 360 in 3DOF quickly, cheaply, and portably, this is a great option.
- Gear VR: a niche Samsung market. It’s not plop and go, but it can’t give you 6DOF, either. It is arguably more expensive than the VR One Plus and requires much more time for setup. A decent option for someone already owning an un-exploded Samsung phone, but not a go-to for the mass population.
- Oculus Rift: for the sit and stay. Allowing for more functions (such as gaming), this set gives you 6DOF using the right programs. As is true for everything, more options gives way to more problematic opportunities. I won’t yet say watching videos isn’t possible, as I know a fix will be upon us soon, but this type of a setup is more of an investment for those who are truly into the VR space.
Happy Virtual Reality-ing!
We are all very used to the crispness of today’s TVs, cameras and computer monitors. VR is not yet at the same level. Each headset had slightly varying degrees of clarity, but the biggest game-changer in resolution will come from 360 camera evolution. For that reason, the clarity of the actual viewers seemed unnecessary. Stay tuned for 360 camera reviews.