Virtual reality gaming isn’t new.
Gamers have coveted the technology for decades. The term itself was popularized in the 1980s by Jaron Lanier, who founded the company VPL REsearch in 1985, whose technology was used to make, among other things, the famous Nintendo Power Glove.
By the 1990s, consumer headsets were becoming more widely available. In 1992, Computer Gaming World predicted that affordable VR would be on the market by 1994.
While it certainly took a little bit longer than two years to become a household name, virtual reality has finally arrived en force. Last year, the virtual reality market was worth US$7.9 billion.
By 2024, that’s expected to increase to $44.7 billion, according to Research and Markets, a market research store that investigates various industries.
Image: Grandview Research
The reasons for this growth are numerous.
For one, the technology has seen near constant R&D (research and development) to find low-cost, wearable solutions for the mass market, as Grandview Research points out. For another, virtual reality is just plain cool.
The technology got a kickstart in the 2010s when Palmer Luckey released the first prototype of the Oculus Rift, which introduced a 90-degree field of vision that was unlike anything seen on the consumer market before.
Three years later, Valve Corporation released the specs for a low-persistence display that provided a lag-free and smear-free display for VR content.
That tech was adopted by Oculus and has been used ever since.
Other organizations began jumping on the trend and by 2016 there were at least 230 companies developing VR-related products, including big guns like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Song, and Samsung.
We are living in a virtual reality renaissance.
All of these advances, which have come in leaps and bounds in recent years, have led to the proliferation of affordable Virtual Reality headsets that are available to any PC gamer with a couple of bucks in their pocket.
We’re going to run through the best options that are currently on the market. Feel free to sift through the list and find which option works best for you.
Since its prototype launch in 2010, Oculus Rift has become a behemoth in the VR headset game.
The company is now owned by Facebook, which continues to dump money into developing the technology even further.
The latest models feature some fantastic apps in its store.
Whether you want to take a space flight in Eve Valkyrie, deal with the frights in Resident Evil: Biohazard, or enter the surreal world of A Fisherman’s Tale, the Oculus Rift has you covered.
The headset offers immersive OLED panels with 2160 x 1200 resolution, which really allows you to immerse yourself in the worlds of these games.
The Oculus also now offers handheld touch controllers, which are designed to make it feel like you are actually using your hands and not a clunky, old-fashioned controller.
What sets this technology apart from the others on this list is that it offers you the freedom to roam around a room.
Other systems, to be fair, offer you some movement, but HTC Vive uses sensors that can be mounted on walls to map out your location within the physical space and integrate it into the virtual world.
Of course, the one drawback here is that you need a big enough playing space to take advantage of this technology. You’ll also need a computer or laptop with a powerful graphics card to get the full effect.
But assuming you have those, you’ll be treated to a range of experiences and environments.
Whether its climbing Everest, shooting aliens in DOOM, or tearing through various alternate universes in Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality, there are plenty of options available.
The fact that this headset was built to work with Valve, the gaming company that operates the Steam online gaming store, should come as no surprise.
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This standalone device comes with the same hardware and features as the Rift, and the built-in tracking allows for six degrees of freedom movement.
One of the cool features of this is that, while it doesn’t need to be tethered to a gaming PC or phone in order to run, it’s still cross-compatible with other Oculus headsets.
So if you own one, you can play with friends who have an Oculus Rift with no issues at all.
Now, while playing a game for a short period of time will yield no issues, the weight of the device can become noticeable over an extended period of use.
So, if you’re looking to binge any programming on Netflix, you may need to do some stretches ahead of time.
If you do decide to spend the afternoon cramming in another rewatch of The Office using the Oculus Quest, you may begin to notice a certain amount of light leakage.
But once you’re immersed in the programming it becomes easy to overlook this issue.
When it comes to actual gameplay, the tracking, visuals, and audio all work perfectly in tandem to create a top of the line, in-home VR experience.
The only thing you might want to add to your setup is headphones to help enhance the audio system that is already built into the headset.
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They’re attempting to accomplish this by making the PC requirements readily accessible, hardware easily affordable, and the software standard.
The Acer has succeeded in dropping the price to an affordable level, even if it had to make a few compromises along the way.
While the materials might feel a bit cheap and you have to be content with some light leakage from the back, the overall design is good.
The PC requirements are lower than competitors like the Vive or Rift, making it a great introductory option for people.
The WMR headsets also now have access to the full library of VR games on Steam through Windows Mixed Reality for SteamVR.
On the design front, the Acer forgoes the usual, and somewhat overplayed, basic black, white, or grey look.
Instead, it opts for a poppier royal blue color that takes itself less seriously than some of the other options on this list.
If you’re interested in specs, the AH101 comes with a 2.9 x 2-inch LCD panel providing 1440 x 1440 resolution and a 100-degree field of view.
On the refresh rate front, this headset delivers 90 hertz when plugged into a system, but that drops to 60 hertz on systems with integrated graphics and an HDMI 1.4 port.
The 60Hz option is usually acceptable for most gamers.
Rather than relying on wall-mounted sensors to map out the playing area, the AH101 instead uses two fish-eye sensors mounted on the front of the device for “inside-out” tracking, which allows you to walk around without any external sensors.
Much like other systems, this headset has an integrated gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer, which provides six degrees of freedom positional tracking.
One unique feature of the Microsoft headsets is the ability to use voice commands.
Using Acer and other Microsoft products, you can summon Cortana, the company’s digital assistant, to help with a number of different tasks like selecting objects in the VR space, launching apps, or resizing browsers and objects – not to mention the usual virtual assistant things like checking the weather and asking for restaurant recommendations.
Microsoft has billed its headsets as “mixed reality,” and certainly you would think the built-in sensors would allow for digital images to be placed atop the real world. But so far, Microsoft has yet to take advantage of this type of technology.
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Dell’s foray into the VR market has yielded a 1.3 pound headset that offers 1440 x 1440px resolution per eye through individual 90 hertz LCD displays with RGB sub-pixels.
The Fresnel lenses provide a 110-degree maximum field of view.
Like the Acer AH101, Dell’s tech comes with an inside-out tracking system via dual cameras mounted on the headset, forgoing the need for eternal sensors.
The device is secured with a rigid headband which is used to great effect.
Given that this headset is actually heavier than the Rift, for example, it’s actually more comfortable, putting the weight on the top of your head rather than pulling a headset into your face.
One questionable omission is the lack of built-in headphones, meaning you have to supply your own audio system.
This can cause problems with the rigid head-strap, depending on the type of headphones you prefer to use.
Another interesting omission: the Dell doesn’t offer you the ability to adjust the interpupillary distance (IPD).
Both the Oculus Rift and Vive, for example, provide a physical dial to make adjustments to the IPD, but the Dell only provides a software control that is hard to find and has no instructions on how to use it.
To use the controllers with a desktop, you’ll need to get yourself a Bluetooth adapter, as Dell doesn’t provide one of its own.
The controllers require Bluetooth to function, but most desktops don’t have this technology.
Dell makes use of the Windows Mixed Reality technology, which means you’re somewhat limited in the games available through that particular system.
Where Dell really drops the ball is with its tracking system and controllers. The inside-out technology only follow what the camera actually sees.
The two cameras mounted in front of your eyeballs are fine for the most part, but sometimes lose track of your controllers if they aren’t visible.
So if you put your hands behind your back or at your side, they can disappear from your field of vision.
The system will make an educated guess using the gyroscopic data for a period, so if you move your hand behind you, it will create a virtual hand motion as well.
But this only works for a short period before the tracking is lost.
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That said, headsets like the HP VR1000-100 offer something that the other PC-powered devices don’t – the ability to run virtual reality on PCs with integrated graphics.
What sets this device apart from the others is the built-in headphone jack placed on the bottom right of the headset, making it much easier to plug in your headphones.
The HP also allows you to adjust the length of your USB 3.0/HDMI cable from two to six feet.
The design of this machine relies on the near-uniform black like many of its competitors.
And like the other “mixed reality” headsets, it offers two sensors on the front of the visor to help place you in the world.
Like the Acer Windows Mixed Reality AH101 headset, this device comes with a hinge that allows you to flip up the visor in case you need to check in with the real world at any point.
The HP is a little heavier after long periods of use, however.
Still, the devices using the Windows system seemed to have mastered the comfortable design technique, crafting headbands that are easy on the noggin and aren’t aesthetically displeasing at the same time.
Like the AH101, the HP MR headset offers a 2.9 x 2-inch LCD panel with 1440 x 1440 resolution for each eye and a 100-degree field.
Also like the AH101, it suffers from an overall lack of content at the moment, though that could change in the future.
It also provides strong proof that these companies are constantly tweaking the technology and releasing new iterations with the goal of making virtual reality more accessible.
The Explorer is a great intro product, requiring minimal setup beyond a compatible Windows PC or laptop.
When you open the package you’ll find the headset, a pair of controllers, the instruction manual, and that’s it. This is basically a VR headset designed for luddites.
This device is lighter and more comfortable than options like the Oculus or HTC, and offers a single adjustment dial on the back of the head strap to find the perfect fit.
And like the HP VR1000-100 and AH101, the visor flips up in case you need to check the timer on the microwave and make sure the cat is still okay.
The device connects to your PC through a cable that plugs into the HDMI and USB ports of your computer.
Once it’s plugged in, Windows will recognize the headset and start the setup process automatically.
Once you’re up and running, you’ll be looking at two 2.89-inch LCDs with a field vision of 110 degrees.
The lenses provide a 2,880 x 1,440 resolution and a 90Hz refresh rate. Making this device more than powerful enough to create a high-quality viewing experience.
One tiny issue is that the lenses are slightly narrow. This causes occasional black rings around the edge of the display, which can take you out of the experience.
That said, your eyes will adjust pretty quickly.
On top of that, the sweet spot position, where the image is the clearest, is pretty small on the Explorer.
That might have you spending more time than you’d like adjusting the settings until things look good. Different users will experience this differently though.
Like the HP VR and the AH101, this relies on the Microsoft store for games. You’ll also be able to call on the digital assistant Cortana if you have any issues.
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As you can see, there are a number of affordable options for PC gamers out there. And with more and more computer companies releasing VR-enabled machines, the options will only continue to grow.
The use of virtual reality in the gaming and entertainment sectors will continue to grow, spurred on by the growing interest in the technology.
While not everyone may be ready for virtual reality gaming at the moment, it is quickly gaining steam.
It won’t be long before these headsets are as ubiquitous as a gaming console like Playstation or XBox.
And with more affordable options coming on the market every day, it’s easier than ever to check it out for yourself.