Last November, I wrote a column about the ways in which virtual reality might become a real, mainstream thing, despite years and years of false starts, hype and skepticism.
What a difference four months make. In November, we speculated about release dates and prices for upcoming products such as the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift VR headset, a VR device for Sony's PlayStation 4 and HTC's Vive. How far away it all seemed! Such possibilities!
By the time South by Southwest Interactive started on March 11, it was clear that not only are the devices real and on deck to arrive (Oculus Rift officially debuted Monday; Samsung's Gear VR is widely available and HTC and Sony's products arrive this month and October), but there's a lot of enthusiasm and excitement to try them out and, on the developer side, to create experiences using VR and/or 360-degree video. There are still plenty of barriers and headaches (some literal) to getting started with full-blown VR, but the door is opening quickly to those who are interested and have the money to invest in the technology. It's happening in dribs and drabs, such as the NCAA's VR broadcasts of the Final Four and championship games over the weekend and apps from Discovery, The New York Times and other media companies getting into virtual content.
If you've not kept up with the hardware announcements and pre-order offers, not to worry. We're just getting started with this brave new virtual world and most of the devices are being targeted at video gamers and bleeding-edge early adopters. And the definition of what "virtual reality" actually means has blurred. It can still mean entering a computer-generated world, the kinds of stuff movies like "Tron" trained us to expect. But increasingly, VR headsets are also being used to display 360- or 180-degree live-action videos and the future could be a mix of virtual and so-called "augmented reality" that blends the world around us with virtual objects and data. That's what Microsoft is working on with "Hololens," a device it just started sending out to developers this month.
But for now, let's focus on the present and immediate future of VR. Here are some of the most buzzed-about VR devices you can get your hands on today or in the next few months:
What is it: A headset that uses a Samsung phone such as the Galaxy S7 or Note5 as its screen. The phone clips into the goggles and uses the device's connection to access VR content. The device has a focus wheel, touchpad, volume and back keys built into the goggles.
Price: About $99, though some Samsung phone buyers were able to get GearVR free with a new phone purchase recently.
What you get: Not much in the way of accessories, but it has access to lots of apps including the Oculus Video viewer Netflix and games including "Eve Gunjack."
My take: Probably the cheapest and most accessible way to get into VR apart from Google Cardboard. My experiences with Gear VR have been mixed. A lot of the content is low-resolution by design, due to the power limitations of it running off a phone. And they tend to run hot; at a Samsung demo for Six Flags Roller Coasters at South by Southwest, the phones and Gear VR units had to take breaks between virtual rides due to overheating. So a mixed bag as VR goes, but an attractive price.
What is it: One of the most famous Kickstarter success stories, this flagship product for VR was purchased by Facebook in 2014 and now seems like a very smart bet. Pre-orders for the device, which launched March 28, sold out immediately. Oculus is basically a headset with content pumped to it from a nearby, tethered Windows PC. If you don't already have a powerful gaming PC (minimum requirements), this is among the pricier options.
What you get: A headset, a desk-mountable sensor, a remote controller, Xbox game controller and the game "Lucky's Tale."
My take: Oculus is very impressive. The headset has been refined over several versions and it seems to have the most mature library of content given the amount of time developers have had to work with it. That said, it's a very expensive proposition for anyone who doesn't already have a powerful Windows computer to run it.
What is it: A collaboration between hardware maker HTC and gaming giant Valve Corp., the key difference between the Vive and Oculus is the Vive's emphasis on moving around a room (it comes with sensors to mark off a specific area) and the inclusion of two handheld controller sensors. It launches on April 5.
What you get: Vive headset, two wireless controllers, two base stations, link box and earbuds.
My take: The experience of being able to move around a room (with help from a friend; I imagine it's tough to run this alone) makes for a very compelling experience and Valve's involvement means there will be no shortage of games developed for it. But as with Oculus, being tethered by a cable to a computer feels limiting. It's also just as expensive as Oculus when you factor in a powerful PC (minimum requirements) to run it. The handheld controllers, though, are really well designed and could give it an edge over Oculus, which has a Touch controller coming; it's not yet available.
What is it: Sony's version of VR will be powered by its PlayStation 4 game console. It has a 5.7-inch OLED screen and will be able to access virtual worlds and hardcore games, Sony says. The system was shown off at this year's South by Southwest Interactive, but we're still months from its October launch date. It requires a PlayStation Eye camera and PlayStation Move controllers, which are already widely available.
Price: $400 for basic kit, $500 with PlayStation Move controllers and PlayStation Eye camera (required).
What you get: The $500 version includes the necessary extra hardware for gamers who don't already own an Eye or Move controllers plus a game disc, "PlayStation Worlds." It also includes connector cables and earbuds.
My take: There's been a lot of excitement about this device, particularly in the idea of using the PlayStation 4 to power the experience versus an expensive computer. That said, it's unclear how many games and VR experiences will be available at launch and whether Sony will open the device up for users to access VR content off the web. Sony says the device may end up working with PCs as well. Unfortunately, Sony has a track record for introducing flashy game accessories that don't end up being much use with actual games (PlayStation Move and the PlayStation Eye to date have been underutilized). The price seems right and like lots of people, I'm intrigued whether PlayStation VR can live up to the best of what Oculus and Vive already offer.
What is it: Literally, a piece of cardboard. It includes lenses and a magnet that acts as a trigger button, but users bring their own smart phone screen to the party, inserting it into the folded contraption and accessing VR content through YouTube and other apps. Other people make versions of Cardboard VR, but Google has done a good job maintaining a storefront, doing giveaways and promoting the concept.
Price: About $15-$30 depending on the model.
What you get: Typically a folded-up piece of cardboard you have to assemble yourself. Some of the fancier versions include a carrying case or holder.
My take: If you don't mind folding up cardboard, it's easily the cheapest and least complicated way to experience 360-degree video and some basic VR. If you have a smart phone such as an iPhone or Android model and a pair of headphones, they should work perfectly fine with Cardboard and give you an idea of whether you should wade further into the waters of VR.