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Head Games: The Virtual Reality Roundup

Head mounted displays promise to either augment reality, or drop you into a completely virtual one. From the HoloLens to a cardboard box, we run down some of the top devices vying to capture your senses.

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With the recent reveal of the Microsoft HoloLens, we're entering into an era of head mounted displays that pit virtual reality against augmented reality. Which devices show the most potential to win the battle over your headspace? We run down what some of the options are, how they differ, and which ones best fit into the reality of your choosing.


Microsoft HoloLens

Microsoft made a huge impact with the announcement and reveal of the HoloLens. Instead of being a virtual reality headset, HoloLens promises to merge virtual reality with actual reality by overlaying data on top of objects. Not only is the augmented reality headset completely self contained (it doesn't need a PC or smart phone connection) and wireless, but it also has a gesture sensor built into it in addition to gaze and voice recognition. That way, users can interact with virtual objects without the use of special gloves or secondary devices, making it ideal for general use and gaming. Having a custom Windows 10 experience accompany it might also go a long way towards helping people adopt the technology.

Despite a lengthy demonstration, there are still a lot of unknowns surrounding the HoloLens. There's no way to tell home much a head-mounted computer system will cost, or how long the battery will last. The prototype attendees went hands-on with at the Windows press briefing was hooked to an external power source. Although early impressions have been largely positive, there's still a long road between its announcement and release.


Oculus Rift

Although the Oculus Rift headset was a favorite among virtual reality enthusiasts before the company's purchase by Facebook last year, but now it's seen as leading the way for VR technology. The fully enclosed headset provides a totally immersive experience for games like EVE Valkyrie. Unlike the augmented reality approach that the HoloLens proposes to use, there is no real world blending. You are completely transported to a different space when wearing the headset. However, as impressive development kits have been so far, the device still has a lot to prove. Most notably weight, long-term usability, and a means of haptic feedback are still factors, along with how it needs to be hooked into an expensive high-powered PC to provide a decent experience. Still, it could be the stepping stone towards a new era in gaming and computer interface.


Sony Project Morpheus

If any device has a shot at making virtual reality headset a part of mainstream gaming, it might be Sony's Project Morpheus. The VR headset is being developed specifically for the PlayStation 4 hardware and relies on the PlayStation Camera and sensors for head tracking and the Move controller for interface. Unlike the Oculus, which puts its emphasis on virtual world experiences, Morpheus is being developed specifically for gaming. Although there will probably be other applications, the emphasis is on creating the best possible PlayStation VR experience. However, it remains to be seen how well the Morpheus, which is completely reliant on PlayStation hardware, matches up against the open Oculus platform or the completely self-contained HoloLens augmented reality hardware for games and entertainment.


Samsung Gear VR

The Samsung Gear VR has two things going for it. 1. It's available now, and 2. at a suggested retail price of $200, it's affordable compared to other virtual reality dev kits. However, that's matched by a few significant downsides. Firstly, you can only use it with a Samsung Galaxy Note 4. Secondly, there's limited availability, and lastly, it can't be connect to a PC for a deeper experience. Based on the Oculus Rift design, the Gear VR headset requires you to insert your Galaxy Note 4 into the case, and the phone becomes the VR screen and processor while the headset's lenses bend the stereoscopic images. The software uses the phone's gyroscope for motion tracking and there's a small touch pad on the side for interaction. Additionally, users can use a Bluetooth controller for games. Although you don't full head tracking, like leaning in to examine something closely, and the graphical fidelity isn't as good as the Oculus headset, the setup still provides an impressive virtual experience. Furthermore, even though the VR apps are free, there aren't a lot of them, and they're mainly comprised of demos and little mini-games. On the other hand, this could be a nice, relatively inexpensive, introduction to VR technology.


Google Cardboard

If you're looking for something cheap and easy, it doesn't get much better than a cardboard box. Similar to how the Samsung Gear VR works, Google Cardboard is a free app that uses a pair of magnifying lenses inserted into a cardboard box that bears a vague semblance to a toy View-Master. Free DIY instructions are available online, or you can buy a pre-made kit, but either way, this is the cheapest way to get a VR experience. Run the Google Cardboard app on your Android phone, then insert the phone into the cardboard adapter. It might not be as cool or refined as an Oculus headset, but what do you expect? It's a cardboard box! The software and apps are also free.


Google Glass

Although Google Glass isn't a VR experience, and it just barely qualifies as an augmented reality experience, we would be remiss in not mentioning it among the group of potential head-mounted displays. The device, which is essentially a head-mounted equivalent to a smart watch, has stirred up a fair amount of controversy and privacy concerns during its development. Glass has a small touch sensor on its side and responds to both voice commands and small head gestures, but it relies on an Android phone to handle its processing, web searching, and calling capabilities. Although it has the potential for gaming applications, it is by no means designed for it, and it wouldn't match the experience that the Microsoft HoloLens promises. Things aren't looking great for Glass, especially since the pricey $1,500 prototype was withdrawn from the market earlier this month (January 19th), perhaps for a redesign so that the "Glasshole" effect can somehow be reduced or eliminated.

Some speculate that the entire project may be shelved indefinitely, marking an end to a supposed wearable technology revolution that fizzled before it started. However, a new version of Glass is expected to be revealed later this year. It remains to be seen whether or not that will actually happen, but given the positive reaction to the HoloLens so far, perhaps the project will be steered more toward an augmented reality experience than an unappealing smart phone accessory.


Razer OSVR

The gaming hardware and accessory company, Razer, recently threw its hat into the VR ring with the announcement of OSVR. At this early stage, the OSVR Hacker Dev Kit is for developers and hobbyists to toy around with using open source hardware and software. With a price of $200, the headset makes for an appealing starter for anyone interested in getting into VR development. It's a bet on the future, because using the community to help tinker with the hardware and software may lead to consumer product somewhere down the road that will give devices like the Oculus Rift a run for its money.

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