Are You Ready to Step into Our VR Future?

A scene from 1993’s virtual reality thriller Arcade

Working on our July/August print edition we had fun with some categories we don’t normally follow closely. Yours truly got curious enough about so-called pico projectors to call in a few for a test. Watch for our survey, which includes two remarkable projectors that actually slip into your breast pocket, and two “minibeamers” that resemble the big-boy home theater projectors we test year round, just shrunk way, way down.

On the audio front, along with reviews of some very high-performing headphones, Geoff Morrison rounded up a few compact and super-affordable tube-driven headphone amps he found on Amazon. With a bit too much idle time on his hands while healing a broken leg, he did a little comparo to see what 60 bucks or so will net you on sound and build quality. The results may surprise you.

But if you’re looking to step outside the box and into the future, Geoff’s primer story on virtual reality will help get you grounded on a technology that we’ve all been hearing more about. Media coverage of VR has exploded as of late in anticipation of the upcoming release (finally) of the Oculus Rift in early 2016, not to mention the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR due out late 2016/early 2017. Adding to this excitement are the multitudinous activities to bring VR programming into the mainstream: various game developers, movie production companies, and sports broadcasters have committed to creating both highly interactive and more “sit-back” immersive experiences using VR technology. But is VR really ready for prime time?

Well...yes and no. The products mentioned above are really sophisticated computer and game console peripherals, and they’re not cheap: $600 for the Rift, $800 for the Vive, and $400 for the PlayStation VR. And unless you’re already a serious hard-core gamer, the Rift and Vive will likely require a PC or video card upgrade to run. By virtue of their pricing and powerful platforms, these goggles are able to use the widest range of sensors to closely track head movements and even your position in space. When released, they will be by far the most sophisticated VR products to yet reach consumers and will deliver the best experience attainable today. But they’re still first-generation VR.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is “VR for the rest of us” in the guise of Google Cardboard and its spin-offs: Samsung Gear VR and products like the Zeiss VR One, which I’ve personally been auditioning. These use your smartphone, which already has onboard motion and position sensors, to play virtual reality apps that can be viewed through goggles costing anywhere from less than $20 for cardboard versions up to perhaps $150 for plastic enclosures. They vary somewhat in features, comfort, and the quality of the lenses, but they all have in common one thing: They’re not quite VR as it’s intended to be seen. And due to the phone’s more meager processing and more compromised ability to track movement, these goggles are more likely to trigger the motion sickness that early VR has become known for.

As Geoff put it in his story, “Judging VR based on [Google Cardboard] would be like eating a raisin and deciding wine sucks.” Let’s hope we see a bridging of that gap soon as the best VR systems come down in price and the smartphones and apps get more and more sophisticated.