It’s seemingly been “the next frontier” in gaming and entertainment for years now, but slowly virtual reality is becoming more accessible, more versatile, and more engaging for a lot more people. From disposable cardboard eyepieces that work with smartphones to full-fledged VR gear, the barrier for entry into this brave new world has never been lower.
Deciding how you engage in VR depends on a few factors, such as whether you’re looking to game or just explore, whether you’re adding on to an existing system or need a standalone unit and your own personal comfort level with having things strapped to your face. Here’s how to identify the best VR headsets that fit your home entertainment profile.
- Best standalone VR headset: Oculus Quest 2
- Best VR headset that moves with you: HTC VIVE Cosmos
- Best VR headset to wear for long stretches of time: Oculus Rift S PC-Powered VR Gaming Headset
- Best touch-sensitive VR headset: Valve Index VR
- Best VR headset for a variety of entertainment forms: Sony PlayStation VR
- Best budget VR headset: DESTEK VR headset
Things to consider if you want to find the best VR headset
When looking for the best VR headset, it’s important to know what options are out there for gaming accessories and home entertainment. Your choices can vary depending on what type of entertainment you want to access, what kind of connection your headset requires, and even just plain old comfort. If you’re looking to explore virtual reality with a gaming headset, before making your purchase, take a look at the considerations below.
How do you want to connect?
Before you begin looking for a device, consider which avenue of connection best suits your lifestyle, entertainment center set-up, or consistency of use. There are a few different connectivity types, with the primary ones being mobile, tethered, and standalone. For many people, mobile was their gateway drug into VR in the form of inexpensive, cardboard boxes designed to project VR content off of a smartphone. They were so inexpensive, in fact, that in 2015 the New York Times sent 1.1 million of them to subscribers for free. They required no additional hardware outside your own phone, and content was accessed via simple downloadable apps. But that experience is designed to be short and only semi-immersive—you have to physically hold the box up to your face, for one, which limits your viewing time, and you’re not getting the typical 3D surround sound feel that really pulls you in. And to be honest, most mobile companies are starting to abandon the format altogether.
Tethered VR headsets are connected via cables to a central device, like a gaming console or PC, and let you view everything from games to simulations to more passive movies or linear stories. They tend to give a more immersive feel than mobile VR sets, but, again, you’re essentially shopping for an accessory for a system you already own.
This brings us to standalone VR headsets. These are the middle ground between mobile and tethered—they’re more advanced than a cardboard box but also don’t need a centralized device to view content. This all-in-one system allows for more flexibility in the viewing experience.
Best standalone VR headset: Oculus Quest 2
Oculus is at the forefront of VR technology, and their standalone Quest 2 is the complete package for an advanced, immersive VR experience. Equipped with two touch controllers that make for smooth, intuitive interaction and a chargeable headset that delivers high-resolution imagery and cinematic 3D positional audio, this is the real deal. Oculus also has partnerships that guarantee quality content such as Star Wars: Tales from The Galaxy’s Edge, Jurassic World: Aftermath, and The Climb 2.
Does it all track?
What does “tracking” mean in a VR context? It’s a technical term for just how real your virtual reality feels. It refers to the ability of the virtual world to track your head movements and adjust the game or viewing experience accordingly.
There are two types of tracking in VR: Positional Tracking and Rotational Tracking. With rotational tracking—sometimes indicated as 3DoF—you have the ability to look up and down, left and right, and tilt your head slightly. But your body pretty much has to remain in one place. If you were to physically move around, the world would appear to “move” with you, rather than you moving within the world. While you may ask “what’s the point of that, then?” consider a VR experience in which you are seated—like piloting a spaceship or submarine. In that case, rotational tracking would be fine and maybe even ideal.
With positional tracking (6DoF), you are free to move around within the VR environment. You can walk around your room and the world expands to accommodate your movement. This is a truly immersive experience, and only possible with un-tethered VR headsets (and a clean room).
The best virtual reality headset that moves with you: HTC VIVE Cosmos
Designed with six tracking cameras for a 2880 x 1770 combined resolution, the HTC VIVE Cosmos allows the wearer to move in a 3D space and uses motion-tracking controllers to interact with the environment. It employs what’s known as “room scale” VR technology, and it feels natural and expansive without the limitations of other headsets.
Look at weight and comfort level in your VR headset
One of the biggest hurdles VR faces is people’s reluctance to strap a large electronic device directly to their face for long periods of time. It can be uncomfortable at best, and claustrophobic at worst.
While there are some differences in weights among most of the best VR headsets, there’s not much that can be done about the bulkiness right now. We say “right now” because several companies are experimenting with ways to streamline the VR headset to make it less intimidating and awkward. In fact, in February 2020, HTC unveiled a concept model called “Project Proton” that made the boxy VR headset look almost like a pair of really sleek ski goggles.
But based on what we have in front of us today, the best thing to focus on is the weight. Most of the higher-end virtual reality headset systems come in at about 1.0 to 1.3 pounds—which doesn’t seem like much, but could strain the neck after long sessions. And while some claim to fit glasses, it’s difficult to know without a little trial and error which ones actually accommodate them well and which ones don’t. Some, like the PlayStation VR, allows you to adjust the lens distance from your eyes, which is helpful for those who wear eyeglasses.
Best VR headset to wear for long stretches of time: Oculus Rift S PC-Powered VR Gaming Headset
Weighing in at around 1.2 pounds, the Oculus Rift isn’t the lightest headset, but it’s not the heaviest either. Its ergonomically designed “halo” headband is easy to adjust and rests comfortably on your head, and the viewfinder is able to accommodate those with glasses. It also doesn’t “jostle” around when you move your head quickly, making it one of the best gaming headset options on the market.
How do you take control in virtual reality?
The first thing everyone wants to do when they enter a VR world is, look around and take in the mind-blowing visuals. After a while, though, you definitely want to start interacting with the environment, and the best way to do this is through some kind of hand controls. Of course, not every device has compatible hand controls, so you’ll need to identify how important getting your hands virtually dirty really is.
Wands and touch-sensitive hand controls that mimic the sensation of touching something in real life were once a luxury add-on, but more and more they are becoming immutable parts of the VR headset package—as manufacturers understand how integral they are to the overall experience. Of course, if you’re looking for a more passive VR experience, such as “virtual travel” or immersive movies, you can maybe skimp on or even outright ditch the need for specialized controllers of any kind.
Best touch-sensitive VR headset: Valve Index VR
The Valve Index’s twin controllers strap firmly to your hands, and the contoured handles rest comfortably over your palms. You don’t have to worry about dropping them, and the buttons and triggers are perfectly placed to avoid blind fumbling. They function as a standard game controller, but can also sense finger proximity—which allows a finger to point, or your onscreen avatar to give a thumbs-up if you raise a thumb. It may not be a haptic glove, but it feels pretty close.
What are you watching on your headset?
The final, and perhaps most important, decision to make is what you hope to get out of your VR headset from an entertainment perspective. Like a lot of devices—such as your gaming console—the ability to shift from active to passive forms of entertainment is much easier, with a single product able to become full hubs for games, TV, and music. VR is similar, and choosing the right model can open up your options.
Although VR is largely associated with gaming, it’s actually not always an ideal gaming platform. Many games require quick movement, precise button manipulation, and team play. These aren’t exactly VR’s strengths. That’s why slightly slower-paced games and experiences work best. Your natural inclination is to look around and absorb the world, not start running and gunning.
It’s also not ideal to have a VR experience that requires nothing from you physically—you’ll want to move around and experience things, but a linear story experience in, say, a movie, won’t allow for that.
So what you want to look for is variety. Educational simulations are a nice middle ground between movie and game, and virtual tourism satisfies the itch to look around and explore new environments. Flight simulators and other more “sit down, strap in” kinds of gaming experiences might be more your gaming speed.
Best VR headset for a variety of entertainment forms: Sony PlayStation VR
The first caveat here is, of course, that you own a PS4. If you don’t, stop right here. If you do, then you’ll find the PlayStation VR to be one of the more surprisingly comfortable headsets (it weighs just about a pound, and is adjustable to fit anyone’s head easily) and it affords you a wealth of content. You have “standard” games with added VR content—like, say, Star Wars Battlefront’s cool X-Wing flight simulator—as well as a host of VR-specific games, like the kid-friendly VR Playroom. As an added bonus, if you don’t have a 3D capable TV and 3D Blu-ray player but do have a few Blu-ray sets that came with a 3D disc, you can watch them through the PlayStation VR headset and recreate the cinema experience.
Best VR headsets: brands to know
The VR landscape isn’t that broad when it comes to the major players, with a few manufacturers dedicating themselves to the format. It’s not something most tech companies simply dabble in (and those that do, don’t tend to last). It’s a commitment, and the few that stay the course end up defining a lot of what we know and understand about the capabilities of the format. You’ve seen a lot of these names already, but here’s a little more about who they are.
The name most associated with VR, primarily due to its often-controversial co-founder Palmer Luckey and the fact that the California-based company was purchased by Facebook in 2014. After helping Samsung develop the smartphone-based Samsung Gear, Oculus released its first consumer headset, the Oculus Rift, in 2016.
Sony PlayStation has been at the top of the gaming food chain since its launch in 1994, and in October 2016, it threw its hat into the VR ring with the introduction of its own proprietary VR headset. Tethered to the PS4 console, the VR headset is a fully immersive experience that doesn’t feel like an add-on, and word on the street says it will be compatible with the newly released PS5.
A partnership between a Taiwanese consumer electronics company and an American gaming company has helped push VR to new limits since the introduction of their HTV Vive headset in 2015. HTC Chief Content Officer and founder of the HTC Vive Phil Chen has said that there is no clear dividing line between HTC and Valve’s responsibilities when it comes to research and development, with both sides being equal partners.
Best budget VR headsets: What you get for under $200
There’s not a lot of middle ground in this category. You either have expensive high-end tech, or very inexpensive options with limited capabilities. A slight improvement over the cardboard boxes, the affordable DESTEK VR headset is compatible with most smartphones but functions more like a true VR headset. Rather than having to hold a box up to your face, the DESTEK straps over your eyes and allows you to insert a smartphone into the viewscreen where you can access VR games and apps. It weighs a hair over a pound and features an adjustable head strap.
The bottom line on VR headsets
There’s a big world out there…if you have the best VR headset. We may very well look back at these years and laugh at our current bulky gear, as we do at the enormous brick phones that pop up in 80s movies, but this is our reality, virtual or not. One day, VR headsets will be sleek and simple and everyone will have them, but for now, there are a few different ways into the category and a lot of room to figure out what you like and what experiences you’re looking for. It won’t be a fun novelty for long, so dive in and get familiarized with VR tech now.