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From Oculus Rift to Google Daydream, VR is getting plenty of hype. Which system should you go for, what do you need to buy, and what should you play?

Until recently, virtual reality had been something of a fantasy for storytellers and technologists. As long ago as 1935, American science fiction writer Stanley G Weinbaum described something like virtual reality in a short story called Pygmalions Spectacles.

But listen a movie that gives one sight and sound. Suppose now I add taste, smell, even touch, if your interest is taken by the story. Suppose I make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it. Would that be to make real a dream?

Technologists might still be working on smell and taste, but Albert Ludwigs magic spectacles eerily foreshadow the current prominence for headsets and 360-degree games, videos and virtual worlds.

Since Ludwigs magic spectacles found their way into print, there have been decades of experimentation around virtual reality, from the first head-mounted VR system in the late 1960s to the first commercial products in the 1980s not to mention Hollywoods interpretation in the1992 film The Lawnmower Man, which shaped mainstream perceptions of virtual reality, or VR, for some time afterwards.

The current age of virtual reality began in 2010, when American teenager Palmer Luckey created the first prototype of a VR headset that would evolve into the Oculus Rift. Two years later, he launched a $250,000 Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to commercialise it and $2.4m of pledges later, the tech industrys interest in VR was reborn. Two years after that, Facebooks CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, liked the Rift so much he bought the company for $2bn.

Palmer
Palmer Luckey of Oculus VR helped kick off the current wave of VR excitement. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Several competitors have emerged since then, from the HTC Vive and Sonys PlayStation VR to smartphone-powered headsets such as Samsungs Gear VR and Google Cardboard. Meanwhile, hundreds of developers are making VR games and apps, film-makers are exploring the potential for documentaries and animation, and Facebook and YouTube have jumped on the bandwagon with 360-degree videos.

But if youre new to virtual reality, where should you start? In the absence of a passing professor with magic specs, heres everything you need to know about hardware, apps and games.

VR hub page

The basics

The most important piece of a virtual reality kit is the headset, a device like a thick pair of goggles that goes over your eyes. The more expensive, higher quality headsets need to be connected to a computer to run apps and games, while some cheaper ones use a cellphone clipped to the front of the headset.

All headsets need to be used alongside a good quality pair of headphones, and there are other optional accessories from hand controllers to treadmills that are all designed to enhance your simulated experience of being in another world. Hand controllers translate your real-world gestures into whatever game or application youre using, although standard gaming joypads can also be used.

VR devices have their own app stores, similar to smartphone app stores, where you can browse and download games and apps. Some of these stores are accessed using the device itself, while others the VR section of the Steam digital games store, for example can be browsed on your computer.

High-end headsets

The
The Oculus Rift is now on sale across the world. Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris/PA

Oculus Rift

Four years after its first crowdfunding campaign, the first commercial version of Oculus Rift launched in early 2016, sold initially from the Oculus VR website and gradually made its way to retailers around the world.

Until now, you needed a powerful PC to use the Oculus Rift. The minimum specs for an Oculus Ready PC are on the official website, with Dell, HP, Alienware and Asus all offering VR-ready machines. Oculus VR has also launched bundles of Rift with a PC, such as the $2,050 Alienware bundle.

That said, Oculus has just announced that thanks to some technology it has dubbed asynchronous spacewarp, the Rift will now work with PCs costing as little as $500.

Oculus is expanding its hardware offering, and in December Oculus will launch a dedicated Oculus Touch controller, which translates your hand gestures into the virtual environment. At $199, its not cheap.

Price: $599 (549) includes the headset with built-in headphones and mic, movement sensor, remote and Xbox One controller.

Youll also need: a powerful PC check the recommended specs.

Best for: early adopters, and anyone keen for a first-hand view of how Facebook will make virtual reality more social.

Verdict: Oculus Rift kickstarted the newest generation of VR and has an inventive community of developers making games and apps for it even if a few have ditched it in protest over its founders political activities. Facebooks financial backing should ensure the Rift is in it for the long haul, too.

10 Oculus Rift apps and games to try

  • Chronos: wonderful-looking role-playing game with plenty of depth
  • Minecraft VR: the blocky building game suits VR well
  • Elite: Dangerous: epic space game gets even more epic with a headset
  • Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes: clever multiplayer game the headset wearer defuses a bomb while friends try to help
  • EVE: Valkyrie: this space dogfighter was made for VR, and it shows
  • The Climb: part game and part experience, this sees you climbing mountains around the world
  • Jaunt VR: a range of great made-for-VR videos, from documentaries to music
  • Henry: Oculus VRs attempt at a Pixar-quality animated short film
  • Apollo 11 VR Experience: a clever historical app that sends you on the moon-landing mission
  • Within: a mix of bespoke fiction and nonfiction videos made for viewing in VR

HTC Vive

The HTC Vive is a partnership between Taiwanese tech firm HTC and the games company Valve. Valve added a dedicated VR category to its existing Steam digital games store, while HTC has just launched its Viveport site for non-gaming apps.

HTCs
HTCs Vive has been the most direct competitor for the Oculus Rift so far. Photograph: Chesnot/Getty Images

Vive is a direct rival to Oculus Rift, though several games and apps are available for both devices. Like the Rift, it requires a PC to run its software, and HTC helps buyers get the right kit by maintaining a list of Vive Ready computers, including partners Alienware, HP and MSI.

The Vive has some unique features, including a front-facing camera which, in certain apps, can bring the real world into your virtual environments. You also get two hand-worn gestural controllers in the box, unlike the Rift, which partly explains the higher price.

The Vive also comes with a base station that tracks your movements, so within fairly tight limits you can walk around inside your VR space. This means a longer setup process, comparable to setting up a high-end home-audio system properly rather than just bunging your stereo on a shelf but as more apps and games use the option, it could prove to be the Vives killer feature.

Price: $799 (759) includes the headset, two wireless hand-controllers, two base stations and a link box to connect it to your computer.

Youll also need: a powerful PC check the recommended specs.

Best for: anyone who wants the absolute top-spec (for now) home VR system, with a mix of gaming and non-gaming.

Verdict: HTC Vive is the most expensive system on the market, and also the one that takes most effort to set up. Yet once youve done that, the ability to walk around within your virtual space, as well as turn your head, is impressive. The involvement of Valve, with its Steam store, means theres a big community of developers too.

10 HTC Vive apps and games to try

  • Job Simulator: a big word-of-mouth hit; its 2050 setting simulates jobs taken over by robots
  • Elite: Dangerous: epic space game gets even more epic with a headset
  • Cosmic Trip: gripping first-person real-time strategy game about colonising alien planets
  • The Brookhaven Experiment: survival-based horror game with plenty of monsters and scares
  • Fantastic Contraption: originally a 2D machine-building puzzler, this works beautifully in 3D and VR
  • Tilt Brush: Googles app is one of the early creative joys in VR: paint in the 3D space around you in a blur of neon
  • Jaunt VR: a great range of made-for-VR videos, from documentaries to music
  • Apollo 11 VR: clever historical app that puts you in the moon landing mission
  • theBlu: if you enjoyed the BBCs Blue Planet, this is a must for its glorious VR ocean life
  • AltspaceVR: interesting attempt at social VR, updating the second life virtual world idea for current headsets

Sonys
Sonys PlayStation VR will soon be on sale. Photograph: Christopher Jue/EPA

Sony PlayStation VR

The third big gun in the VR race is Sonys PlayStation VR headset, which launched in October 2016 as an accessory for the PlayStation 4 games console. Both the PlayStation 4 and new PlayStation 4 Pro are compatible with the headsets, but the pro will run VR games at higher screen resolutions and frame rates.

PlayStation VR will use the PS4s standard console controller, the DualShock 4, but youll need the $60 PlayStation Camera accessory too.

Sony is keen for PlayStation VR to be more than a solitary experience: a feature called VR Social Screen shows what youre seeing in the headset on your TV screen, so friends can join in or watch.

Being part of the PlayStation world inevitably means that games are an even bigger focus for PlayStation VR than for Oculus Rift and Vive. Sony has more than 100 games confirmed already, with 50 of them due to arrive by the end of 2016.

Price: $399 (350) for the headset, processor unit, earphones and cables.

Youll also need: PlayStation Camera, which costs $45 (39). Although you can use standard PS4 joypads for games, some will support the PlayStation Move motion controllers, which cost $99 (70) for a twin-pack.

Best for: gamers or PlayStation 4 gamers at least, since theres (unsurprisingly) no cross-console compatibility with Xbox One or Nintendos consoles.

Verdict: as the first console-connected VR headset out of the blocks, PlayStation VR is also the most affordable high-end model even if you have to buy the PS4 to run it. There are some impressive launch titles, while Sonys clout means there will be a strong pipeline of titles in the months and years ahead, though there may be slimmer pickings for non-game VR apps.

10 PlayStation VR apps and games to try

  • Rez Infinite: brilliant reboot of classic rhythm game Rez
  • Tumble VR: clever puzzle game that involves piling up blocks
  • EVE Valkyrie: this space dogfighter game was specially made for VR, and it shows
  • Batman: Arkham VR: crime-solving strategy with the Dark Knight
  • Superhypercube: first-person puzzler with trippy graphics
  • Thumper: racing, shooting and rhythm-action combine
  • Job Simulator: a big word-of-mouth hit; its 2050 setting simulates jobs taken over by robots
  • PlayStation VR Worlds: from gangsters to racing, this collection of VR mini-games shows off Sonys VR tech
  • Headmaster: use your noggin to complete a series of football-heading challenges
  • Driveclub VR: slick racing game puts you in the cockpit of 80 motors

For a deeper dive into these games, see the Guardians VR apps roundup

Budget headsets

Samsung Gear VR

With Gear VR, were into the category of VR headset that use your smartphone as both the screen and processor. Samsungs headset uses technology from Oculus VR, although it isnt as powerful as the Rift. It only works with Samsungs S6 and S7 smartphone series, as well as the Galaxy Note7 phablet (though if you still have a Note7 put the device down and step away slowly the phone has been the subject of an international recall after a problem with exploding batteries).

Gear VR can be bought as a standalone device, but some retailers will include one in when you buy a new Samsung smartphone so its worth scouting about for deals.

Games and apps are available through Samsungs Oculus Home software, with a growing catalogue of apps, games and content. For Samsung owners, the Gear VR is an affordable way to explore virtual reality even if its graphical capabilities and the processor of the device running its software are less powerful than its rivals.

Price: $100 (100) for the headset.

Youll also need: a recent Samsung smartphone or phablet.

Best for: cost-conscious VR newcomers who dont want to be tied to a computer or console while exploring virtual worlds and games.

Verdict: Gear VR should help grow a more mainstream audience for VR, and has a growing collection of apps and games. Its one restriction is that it can only be used with Samsung smartphones, so anyone with an iPhone or other Android handset is out of luck.

10 Gear VR apps and games to try

  • Lands End: from the makers of Monument Valley, this is an eerie game of exploration
  • Minecraft: Gear VR: blocky building game suits VR well
  • Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes: clever multiplayer game the headset wearer defuses a bomb while friends try to help
  • Smash Hit: inventive rhythm-puzzle game
  • Gunjack: sci-fi shooter that flings ships and bullets at you
  • NextVR: live sports and music in virtual reality
  • AltspaceVR: interesting attempt at social VR, updating the second life virtual world idea for current headsets
  • The Economist VR: intriguing virtual tours from the digitally recreated Mosul Museum to Osakas secrets
  • Jaunt VR: a great range of made-for-VR videos, from documentaries to music
  • Within: bespoke fiction and nonfiction videos made for VR

Google Cardboard and Daydream

Cardboard was Googles first commercial attempt at virtual reality, and yes, the headsets were made of actual cardboard.

Google made the spec for these flat-pack headsets available to other companies, which means there are 13 models from Googles own basic $15 model to Specks $70 Pocket-VR with CandyShell Grip, although the latter includes a protective case for your smartphone.

Googles
Googles Daydream View is fabric, not plastic (or cardboard). Photograph: Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

There are a growing number of apps available on the Android and iOS app stores, from 360-photography to games and documentaries. While not as powerful as more expensive headsets, there is some exciting experimentation going on here.

Googles follow-up to Cardboard, Daydream, was announced in May 2016. Its software will be built into the new Android smartphones (it is part of Nougat, the latest version of Android) as well as hardware, in the form of headsets and handheld controllers. Googles headset, the Daydream View, is made of fabric rather than cardboard, and comes with a motion controller used to translate your gestures into apps and games.

Google services such as YouTube, Street View and Photos will all support Daydream headsets, and launch partners include Netflix, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Guardian, JK Rowlings Fantastic Beasts and Major League Baseball who will all provide apps. The Guardians offering, Underworld, explores Londons subterranean web of Victorian sewers and lost waterways in the shoes of an urban explorer.

Price: Google Cardboard headsets vary in price, but most are $15-$25 (15-25). Daydream View costs $79 (69), including a controller.

Youll also need: a smartphone Cardboard headsets and apps support a wide range of Android phones and iPhones. Daydream View is more restricted: at launch it will work with Googles new Pixel smartphones, but a range of Daydream-supporting Android phones will come out over the next year.

Best for: getting started with VR cheaply and easily, particularly for non-Samsung owners.

Verdict: Daydream View will offer strong competition for the Gear VR. Cardboard is excellent for dabblers, and while some of its apps are fairly limited experiences, others offer plenty to see, do and play.

10 Google Cardboard apps and games to try

  • Cardboard: Googles own collection of VR demos for Cardboard is a great place to start
  • Bohemian Rhapsody Experience: Google teamed up with Queen for this fun VR music video
  • NYT VR: the New York Times take on VR with video news reports
  • Star Wars: the films official app includes the story of Jakku Spy
  • Sisters: one of the scariest VR horror apps
  • Inside Abbey Road: virtual tour of Londons famous Abbey Road Studios
  • Cardboard Camera: shoot 360-degree photos with sound on your smartphone, then relive them in your headset
  • YouTube: the standard YouTube app, but you can watch its 360 and VR videos come to life through Cardboard
  • InMind VR: clever medical arcade adventure lets you travel into a patients brain
  • 6×9: the Guardians compelling exploration of the psychological damage caused by solitary confinement

Microsoft in the wings

As well as working on the augmented-reality headset HoloLens, Microsoft is working with hardware partners to make a range of headsets for Windows PCs, starting at $299 when they go on sale in the spring of 2017.

Were really thinking how are we going to democratise this technology, how are we going to work with these partners to build devices that can reach all price points, that can reach everyone on the planet, Microsofts Terry Myserson told ZDNet. One way you can think about these VR accessories is as an external monitor. Its not technically accurate, but conceptually I think it works quite well. You put on the headset and youre looking at another monitor.

Accessories

A slew of other virtual reality products are coming on to the market beyond the big-name headsets. The early success of Oculus Rift on Kickstarter has made the crowdfunding site a focus for VR startups touting interesting hardware.

From headsets (Impression Pi, ANTVR, Cmoar, Opto, FOVE) to controllers (STEM System, Control VR, Gloveone, iMotion) there are plenty of projects to explore, although be warned the Oculus, HTC, Sony and Samsung devices receive the lions share of attention, so youll need to research developer support for each device to work out if its compatible with your system before committing your cash.

There is also the OSVR project by gaming hardware company Razer, which is trying to create open standards around VR so that people can mix and match different headsets and accessories. For now, there are two versions of its prototype hacker development kit available to buy, although Razer is hoping manufacturers will use its standards to make their own headsets.

How do you film VR?

The cameras and editing software needed to film and then knit together VR footage involve a whole other level of complexity and expense. At $45,000, Nokias OZO camera is out of most peoples price range but is a good example of the kind of kit that professional film-makers are using.

Samsungs
Samsungs Gear 360 is a more affordable VR camera. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

More affordable is Samsungs Gear 360 spherical camera, which costs $350, and which has front and rear lenses to capture 180-degree shots both horizontally and vertically to create panoramic video or photo. Its still an expensive gadget for an average person, but if you want to explore making your own VR videos, its a good starting point.

Pokmon
Pokmon Go is the most popular current app using AR technology. Photograph: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

There are a number of other 360-degree cameras available, like the Ricoh Theta S, Kodak Pixpro SP360 4K Action Cam, LG 360 Cam, Giroptic 360cam and the Vuze Camera. Its also worth keeping tabs on crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo as new camera projects pop up regularly.

360 vs virtual reality

The terms 360 and virtual reality are often used interchangeably, but there are important differences. The 360-degree photos and videos are panoramic pics and videos that have been stitched together, so you can turn your head to look around you. But these arent virtual worlds: you dont have free movement to explore them as you do in full virtual reality experiences.

All VR devices offer a mixture of both, however: you can watch 360 videos or explore virtual worlds with Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard.

Augmented reality vs virtual reality

There are other headsets that let you experience digital wizardry but offer a different experience called augmented reality.

While virtual reality is about immersing you in an entirely virtual world, viewed through a screen in your headset, the real world outside you isnt part of the experience at least not until you trip over the cat or accidentally knock out your child while immersed elsewhere. But augmented reality, as the name suggests, is about augmenting or adding to reality reality. You might be looking at your cat or up your street, but there could be digital characters and content overlaid on them.

Glass, the hi-tech spectacles launched by Google in 2014, were an AR device, but the company has given up on trying to sell them as a mainstream idea. More hardware is on the way, however: Microsofts HoloLens will be the augmented reality equivalent of PlayStation VR and with a similar emphasis on gaming; the popular Minecraft has been one of the key demos for it.

Meanwhile, a Florida-based startup called Magic Leap has raised an astonishing $1.4bn in funding for its AR headset and technology, giving only a few teasers on what it looks like and how it will work.

For now, the most affordable way to try augmented reality is through smartphone apps, which overlay text and graphics on the feed from the camera. The game Pokmon Go and the face-mangling lenses in Snapchat both use augmented reality. Others are more specific: the DFS Sofa and Room Planner (see how a new sofa might look in your living room), Plane Finder AR (see where that plane overhead is going by pointing your camera at it) and Mardles (make 3D characters jump out of stickers for kids).

Facebook
Facebooks CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, sees VR as a social technology, not just a gaming one. Photograph: Stephen Lam/Reuters

Virtual reality beyond gaming

Games loom large in modern-day VR, partly because the original Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR headsets were made primarily for gamers, and also because games are the most easily understandable entertainment category to show off this technology. But as Mark Zuckerberg explained after announcing Facebook was buying Oculus VR, theres a lot more to this than just games.

This is just the start. After games, were going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face to face just by putting on goggles in your home, wrote Zuckerberg.

This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.

Journalism and film-making

Hundreds of developers are working on VR games, but there is lots of activity around other kinds of entertainment and media too. Journalists, film-makers and a growing number of documentary-makers are using 360-degree cameras to find new angles on stories, if youll pardon the pun.

Film-maker Chris Milk set up his virtual reality company in 2014 to produce and distribute VR documentaries, and offers films shot in New York, Cuba and even Syria. Im not interested in the novelty factor, Milk told the Guardian in 2015. Im interested in the foundations for a medium that could be more powerful than cinema, than theatre, than literature, than any other medium weve had before to connect one human being to another.

Traditional media companies have also experimented with VR journalism, from the New York Times VR films to the Guardians 6×9 project, which explores solitary confinement. As the cost of shooting and editing VR footage comes down, expect to see more media companies exploring the potential.