This week, hardware maker HTC and PC game technology company Valve demonstrated theirs, called Vive, and it was met with wild rapturous applause from tech writers.
But how is it any different than Facebook’s Oculus? And what about those Microsoft goggles that their CEO is calling « the new desktop? » And whatever happened to Google Glass?
We thought it might be helpful to get an overview of all the different virtual reality and augmented reality headsets that companies are building and showing off.
Here’s what you need to know.
Who’s behind it? The hardware is made by HTC, best known for its phones, but the underlying technology is made by Valve, which makes very popular platforms for video games.
What does it do? It’s a virtual reality (VR) headset. When you wear it, you seem to be immersed in a computer-generated world. It’s like living inside a really realistic video game.
What’s cool about it? It’s incredibly realistic. But the best part: It’s got a couple of controllers you hold in your hands that actually let your hands show up in the virtual world, letting you wave at passing objects or shoot a gun or whatever. Business Insider’s Steve Kovach called it « the most mind-blowing virtual reality experience ever. »
What’s bad about it? So far, the consensus is it’s the best VR product out there. But it’s still got all the inherent problems with VR: It’s great fun for the person inside the headset, but there’s not much room for interaction with people in the real world. You have to connect it to some kind of computer. And you look silly wearing it.
When can you buy it and how much will it cost? A developer version will be available later this spring, and normal people will be able to buy it in stores by the end of the year, the company says. No word on price.
Who’s behind it? Oculus was an independent company working on VR technology until Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg developed a strong interest in the company and technology. Facebook bought it for $2 billion about a year ago.
What does it do? Virtual reality, which means it puts you into a 360-degree computer-generated world. The Rift is a developer headset that Oculus makes itself, but Oculus also provides technology to other hardware makers like Samsung.
What’s cool about it? It was the first VR headset that showed off how amazingly realistic this technology could be. Tech bigwigs have been raving about it since 2013. Business Insider’s Nicholas Carlson tried it for the first time last December, and immediately tweeted « It’s going to change everything. »
What’s bad about it? Some early versions caused people to get nauseated or disoriented, although this seems to have gotten a lot better with the most recent « Crescent Bay » prototype. It also doesn’t have any way to show your hands when you’re in the virtual world, which can be disorienting.
When can you buy it and how much will it cost? The latest development kit, which is a version for developers to build apps with, is available for $350. It’s expected to go on sale later this year and cost a few hundred bucks.
Who’s behind it? Samsung makes the hardware, but the VR experience is powered by Oculus.
What does it do? It’s a full virtual reality headset, but it uses a Samsung smartphone instead of a computer to power the display.
What’s cool about it? It’s the only one of these products that you can actually buy today. You put the smartphone right in the headset, so you don’t need to be tethered to some kind of computer with wires as you do with most of these other products. It’s got pretty impressive resolution.
What’s bad about it? It doesn’t have full positional tracking like the Oculus Rift. What that means is, while it can tell which direction you’re looking in, it can’t tell if you lean forward or poke your head around an object. That makes it feel less realistic than the full Oculus or other VR headsets.
When can you buy it and how much will it cost? You can get it now for $200.
Who’s behind it? Microsoft. The company has been working on it in a secret lab right below the visitor’s center on its campus in Redmond, Washington, since 2010. They finally showed a prototype in January.
What does it do? It’s not VR, but a slightly different thing called « augmented reality. » That means the goggles are translucent. Some apps totally immerse you in a computer generated world, just like VR. But in a lot of apps, most of what you see is the real world, with computer-generated images superimposed on top of it. So it’s more of a blend of reality and fantasy.
What’s cool about it? Microsoft has built some really cool work-type apps for it. For instance, it built an app with NASA that will let scientists walk around inside a 360-degree version of the Martian surface, constructed of pictures from the Mars Rover. Then, scientists can mark specific spots for further study, which calls the computer program to look up data the Rover collected on just those spots. Plus, Microsoft is promising that it will be part of the broader Windows 10 platform, so regular Windows developers will eventually be able to build apps for it.
What’s bad about it? The version Microsoft showed in January was just a prototype, very unfinished and clunky — the guts of the computer sat in a heavy unit that hangs around your neck. Microsoft has a lot of work ahead to get this thing done.
When can you buy it and how much will it cost? The party line is that this will be out « in the Windows 10 time frame. » Windows 10 is expected to ship this year, but we’d be stunned if Hololens ships at the same time. Maybe 2016. We have no idea what it’ll cost.
Who’s behind it? Magic Leap is a startup run by a colorful character named Rony Abovitz. It just got an investment of $542 million led by Google and featuring other investors like Marc Andreessen and Qualcomm.
What does it do? It’s an augmented reality product, apparently similar to HoloLens. The company hasn’t shown it widely yet, though, so we’re not sure.
What’s cool about it? Magic Leap says it’s developed new technology that projects images directly into each eyeball. This is supposed to eliminate the nausea that some people feel with VR headsets.
What’s bad about it? The company is so secretive, we don’t know what the actual product will look like. The web site is full of demonstrations of what users might see, like the little virtual elephant in the picture above.
When can you buy it and how much will it cost? Abovitz told the MIT Technology Review in February that it’s « not far away. » It will cost in the same price range as other consumer electronics devices.
Who’s behind it? Sony.
What does it do? It’s a full virtual reality headset with an emphasis on games. Sony has been in the console game business for almost 20 years, and many of the best games are available for Sony consoles, so this could become the gamer’s VR headset of choice.
What’s cool about it? It will work with the PlayStation 4 and developers will presumably be making new PS4 games for it. Some reviewers say the current prototype headset feels more finished than the Oculus Rift.
What’s bad about it? Sony seems to be moving very slowly, and it won’t come out until next year.
When can you buy it and how much will it cost? Sony is targeting « the first half of 2016, » but no word on price.
Who makes it? Google was selling a prototype version for developers until earlier this year, but the company always said it was an experiment. Google shut the project down earlier this year.
What did it do? It was a form of augmented reality, where small images appeared to be superimposed on the world around.
What was cool about it? It was the least obtrusive device on this list – instead of a bulky headset or pair of goggles, it was just a pair of glasses frames with a tiny little display. The display beamed imaged onto the wearer’s eyeballs
What was bad about it? It really wasn’t ready for prime time, and it cost $1,500 to get one. The biggest controversy, though, was you could use it to record videos and there was no red light or other indicator that you were recording. Some people got really upset and even went so far as to attack Glass wearers, and ban them from certain public places like bars and movie theaters. Plus, it was meant to be worn out in the world — unlike most of these other devices, which are for use in the home or maybe at work — but it wasn’t very stylish.
When can you buy it and how much will it cost? You can’t buy one now. But Google apparently hasn’t given up: It’s reportedly working on a virtual reality version of Android that it might license to anybody who wants to make a VR headset.