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Virtual reality is said to be the next big thing in technology, with the likes of the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR now readily available to buy in the UK, but which is best? What about mobile VR? What about games and experiences?
While there’s a lot to digest when diving into the world of VR, here we aim to make that a little simpler by explaining what virtual reality is, along with an explanation of the best VR headsets currently available.
We also talk about the benefits of mobile VR, and, of course, the best VR games and experiences available.
What is Virtual Reality?
Put simply, Virtual Reality is an interactive 3D image connected to a computer (or a smartphone) that users can manipulate to create the illusion of being in a virtual world.
Three-dimensional environments coupled with 3D sound and precise head (and sometimes body) tracking effectively tricks your brain into thinking that the virtual world is real, and as such can provide a more immersive and personal experience than simply playing a game or watching a movie on TV.
The possibilities for virtual reality stretch far beyond gaming in your front room, with theorised uses everywhere from social networking to education. But before we go any further – what exactly is virtual reality?
Depending on the manufacturer, the virtual reality experience can vary greatly. Some manufacturers like Oculus offer only the standard head tracking where you’ll be able to look around the virtual environment, but not physically walk around or interact with it.
There's also Microsoft's so-called Mixed Reality which offers a cheaper way to get a VR headset and can also blend elements from the real world.
Some manufacturers like HTC and Valve have taken VR a step further, creating a system where your whole body can be tracked, allowing users to walk around their favourite virtual worlds and interact with it thanks to bespoke handheld controllers.
It’s worth bearing this in mind – while all virtual reality headsets will offer the ability to view virtual three-dimensional worlds, some offer better levels of immersion than others.
Read next: Best gaming PCs for VR
Which VR headset should you buy?
The biggest decision you’re likely to make in terms of virtual reality is which headset to buy. The headset you choose will have an impact on not only the quality of your virtual experience, but also the number of virtual reality games and experiences available to you.
Let’s talk about the ‘big three’ virtual reality headsets on sale at the moment – the £549 Oculus Rift, £759 HTC Vive and £349 PlayStation VR. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are both designed for use with PC, while the PlayStation VR is, as the name suggests, unique to Sony’s PlayStation 4 system, which brings with it both benefits and drawbacks.
Sony has a background in both gaming hardware and software, putting it in a unique place in the market. The company has ample gaming resources from the hugely successful PlayStation line-up, and claims that there are 230 developers working on projects for the PlayStation VR headset.
This means that there should be a wide variety of games and experiences made available throughout 2017. It also has a number of platform exclusives, like the hugely popular Robinson: The Journey.
However, while PlayStation VR has a range of VR content available, it may not necessarily run as well as its PC-powered counterparts. The likes of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive run on gaming PCs that are usually a lot more powerful than the PlayStation 4 and can cost upwards of £800-1000, whereas the PS4 costs around £200-350 depending on the variation.
While we found the PlayStation VR to offer decent quality graphics when run on a standard PS4, thePS4 Pro offers enhanced graphics for supported VR experiences so despite being a mid-range headset, users can fork out a little more for a more high-end VR experience.
With that being said, there isn’t exactly a lack of content being developed for the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and other PC-based VR headsets coming to market.
There are many big-budget games being released in 2017 with virtual reality support, along with those already on the market that offers the functionality.
Depending on the PC that you have, games have the potential to look a lot better when run on a high-end PC than when compared to its console counterpart, although this depends in part on the game/experience you’re playing.
So if there is a lot of VR content being developed for the PC platform, which is the better choice for you? The Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive? It depends on a number of things, including your budget and space.
The Oculus Rift is priced at £499 and thanks to a partnership with Microsoft, works with Windows 10 instinctively, providing a plug ‘n’ play experience that can’t be matched by the HTC Vive. The Oculus Rift provides head tracking, allowing users to look around their virtual environments, but requires a (provided) Xbox One controller or Oculus Touch controllers (sold separately) to move around and interact.
The £759 HTC Vive, on the other hand, comes with two handheld controls that can be used in a number of situations along with two base stations that track your position within a physical space and translate this into virtual movement. They aren't as advanced as the Oculus Touch controllers, but they come bundled with the kit.
Put simply, you can physically walk around a virtual environment, reach out and interact with something, providing something as true to life as is possible at the moment.
Read next: Best VR headsets to buy in the UK
Best VR games and experiences
Developers around the world are producing virtual reality content for both the PC and PS4, which should provide users with a multitude of games and experiences once they get their headsets.
It’s worth noting that games and experiences are two different entities when it comes to virtual reality – while games provide users with something similar to the traditional game setup, an experience is slightly different.
Experiences are all about just that, the experience. With this being said, experiences like ‘The Blu’ transport you to a shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean with fish swimming overhead, and Everest (obviously) provides the experience of climbing ‘Mount Everest’.
It’s also worth mentioning that both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive come with free games to get you started, although these vary depending on when you order. The PlayStation VR headset doesn’t come with any full games, but instead features a demo disc showcasing some of the best VR games and experiences available for Sony’s platform.
Now we’ve got that out of the way, we’ve created a number of articles highlighting some of the best games available for each platform. Browse through each, and see which (if any) appeal to you most. The range of content available should play a big part in your VR headset buying decision, and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Now that VR headsets are readily available around the world, manufacturers have started working on accessories. While there isn't a huge range of VR accessories at the moment, more are appearing all the time.
Take VirZoom for example. It's a VR-enabled exercise bike that launched in 2017, providing a way for gamers to get fit while gaming. While the games aren't incredibly detailed, it's enough to distract you from the fact you're exercising and encourages you to go faster, be it to beat an F1 car you're driving or to build up speed to take off on the back of your pegasus.
It's an incredible accessory for VR owners, and there we've got a feeling that many other VR accessories will appear throughout 2017. If you're interested in finding out more about what's available, take a look at our choice of the best VR accessories.
If you thought that the only way to experience VR was via a premium headset, you’d be wrong. Mobile VR is also up and coming in 2017, providing virtual reality on a budget by utilising your smartphone display and internals.
Google Cardboard is a great example of this, as Google provides users with a ‘headset’ made from cardboard which acts as a holder for your smartphone. Simply open one of the many VR apps available on either Google Play or the App Store, slot your smartphone into the headset and get ready to experience VR on a budget.
Of course, using a smartphone as a display and a computer won’t provide the same level of VR as is produced by a £1000+ PC or a £300 console, but it provides users with some idea of what to expect from VR without forking out for an expensive headset. And if Google Cardboard isn’t your style, there are other companies manufacturing slightly more premium Mobile VR headsets.
Take Homido VR for example - The Homido VR headset is designed with comfort in mind, featuring soft padding to stop your skin becoming irritated when wearing the VR headset, while also doubling up as a comfortable way to combat light leakage.
It also boasts a 100-degree field of view thanks to its specially designed lenses, which should help provide a more immersive VR experience. As well as this, it offers controls that let you adjust the distance between the lenses, as everybody has a slightly different facial shape.
Samsung Galaxy S6/S6 Edge/S7/S7 Edge users can also make use of the Samsung Gear VR headset, which the company shipped along with pre-orders of Samsung’s latest flagship smartphone earlier this year.
The Gear VR headset is slightly different to the Google Cardboard and Homido VR headsets as it works specifically with Galaxy devices, and uses Oculus technology to provide users with a high-end VR experience on a budget. The 2017 variant even provides a motion controller, although not as advanced as PC controllers.
Of course, it still won’t match what the Oculus Rift will be able to do on a PC, but instead provides users with a premium mobile VR experience.
The latest addition to the mobile VR family is the introduction of Google Daydream, a VR platform created by Google. The company created a series of guidelines for smartphone (and VR viewer) manufacturers to follow when designing Daydream-enabled devices, allowing for a unified look and feel.
Unlike Cardboard, Daydream is a little more high-end, with Google’s own Daydream viewers costing users £69 – and that’s without the required phone.
The experience is more premium, the platform boasts some exclusive apps and games, and there’s even an optional motion controller for more interactivity. If you’re not wowed by the likes of Google Cardboard but can’t afford an Oculus Rift, this is a decent middle-ground - those interested can read our Google Daydream viewer review.
Read next: Gear VR vs Oculus Rift
Best mobile VR apps
So, what are some of the best mobile VR apps available right now for iOS and Android? Of course, we’d better give Google Cardboard a mention (available for iOS and Android) as it’s a great starting point for those wanting to experience virtual reality.
The Google Cardboard app features guided tours of places around the world – Versailles is a particularly popular destination – while also doubling up as a VR video player and photo viewer. It doesn’t do much else, but gives you a good idea of what VR can do and for a free app, you can’t really complain.
Fulldive VR is another free VR app, but this time it’s for Android devices only. It’s a pretty handy app to have as it acts as a directory of VR content available throughout the web in one place.
It displays 3D/360-degree videos from YouTube natively, and includes a VR video player, VR browser, a VR camera and a 360-degree VR photo gallery to view photos. There are a few bugs, but the developers are said to be pretty proactive and these should be ironed out fairly soon.
But what about for our iOS counterparts? While there aren’t as many VR apps available, there are still a few worth noting. Vrse is one – VR is going to be a great medium for storytelling and Vrse is already on the ball.
The company produces VR content that is showcased at film festivals, and then puts it on the free VRSE app for those to enjoy at home. The ‘Evolution of Verse’ short film available on the app is a popular choice for VR users, although it’s also worth checking out ‘Clouds Over Sidra’ which documents the life of a 12-year-old girl caught in a Syrian refugee camp.
Want more? Take a look at our choice of the 12 best Google Cardboard apps for VR headsets.
Of course, we wouldn’t be able to get all the way through our guide to virtual reality without mentioning one of its biggest markets – porn.
While VR porn has been available in some shape or form for some time, it has been notoriously hard to find and most of the time you’ll have to pay to get your VR-enabled kicks. That was until now anyway, as Pornhub has made free 360-degree VR porn easily accessible in conjunction with established VR porn store BaDoink.
The VR library is available for PC users along with iOS and Android users, although mobile users will have to use a dedicated VR video player app to stream the content. This is due to file format support, as both iOS and Android don’t currently support the file format and thus, won’t play the video.
Some of the footage currently on the site isn’t entirely 3D and only offers an 180-degree field of view that allows you to look left, right and forward, but Pornhub claims that it’ll have a lot of full 360-degree VR content up very soon.
The VR site is currently live on Pornhub (obviously NSFW) and to celebrate the launch, Pornhub is giving away 10,000 Google Cardboard-esque mobile VR headsets to users that sign up. Simply find a video you want to watch, download a VR video player (Pornhub suggests FreeVRPlayer for iOS/Android) and tap the link to load up the video – it’s that simple.
Early users of the service complain that some of the viewing angles are questionable and make the actress look like she’s 50-foot-tall (although we’re sure some people would love that!) but for a free service, you can’t really complain. Besides, VR porn is still relatively new and may take a while to work out all the bugs with VR content production.