Depending on how old you are, you probably remember a time when there was a lot of hype about virtual reality and how it was going to change everything. In the early 90s the hype for VR was real, but the reality of VR was more than a little awful. The headsets were huge, the graphics induced seasickness, and the technology just wasn’t ready to be much more than a curiosity.

For decades most people basically forgot about VR, but a lot of the technology that VR needed to become practical has been developing in other areas, prepping a perfect storm that first broke around 2016 with the release of the Oculus Rift developer kit. Amazing GPU, CPU, and display technologies, along with advancements pushed along by smartphone development, now make VR a mainstream technology. We now have VR gaming experiences that are unique and fun in their own right; beyond just the novelty of playing something in VR. If you are a gamer, then you definitely should give VR a try. Some of the best VR games offer something unique and fundamentally new when it comes to game design and mechanics, to say nothing of the incredible immersion on offer.

Still, despite modern VR being relatively new, the gear you can buy is already pretty confusing. I’m here to guide you through the swamp of VR gaming gear options so that you can pick the equipment that best suits your needs and budget. I’m going to split the discussion into three main segments: tethered VR, mobile VR, and standalone VR.

Tethered VR

“Tethered” VR refers to a setup where your VR headset and other gear is hooked to a computer or console. In the headset there is no hardware that performs any sort of processing; that all happens on your PC. All truly premium VR experiences are currently tethered. This should make sense since the only place you’ll find the sort of performance needed to push VR graphics is in traditional PC hardware. What sorts of specs are we talking about? Let’s have a look.

Tethered Computer Specifications

One of the biggest shocks to those thinking about getting a first-generation modern VR headset was the required minimum specifications. Even people with quite powerful gaming rigs (for the time) found that their systems were not going to be up to the task.

Why was this? For one thing, the computer in question needed to push the imagery at about 90 frames per second for the illusion to work properly. That’s TWO 90 frames per second images – one for each eye. Most mid- to high-end gaming rigs in 2016 were targeting 60 frames per second with all eye candy turned up on a single display. A very different sort of target.

Since then, things have eased up quite a lot. Mid to low-end GPUs are now powerful enough to drive the sorts of visuals VR needs. You’ll see cards that have a “VR certified” sticker to show that they will work. The VR hardware and software has also become more efficient, getting better performance from slower hardware. At the time of writing, the GTX 1050 Ti was VR certified, which is a lower bar than was present when the first Oculus Rift launched.

The bottom line is that you should pay special attention to the minimum requirements of the headset you want to buy as well as the titles you want to run on it. There’s a good chance you might need to upgrade your PC.

The sole alternative is the PSVR, the VR attachment for the Sony PS4. Even if you have to buy a PS4 because you don’t already own one, this is by far the cheapest tethered VR experience. The Sony headset and console together generally costs as much as just the typical high-end VR headset.

Smartphone Case Mobile VR

The cheapest way to try out VR is by using the smartphone you already have and sticking it into a case that turns it into a VR headset.

Google first came up with the ultra-cheap “Cardboard” concept. It’s a flat-packed cardboard headset using plastic lenses. You fold it together like a cardboard model and then slide the phone into the case. Using the right app, you then get to experience true 3D VR.

Since Cardboard, plenty of fancier, more robust options have come out. Google’s own Daydream headset and Samsung’s Gear VR are the best examples. These headsets only work with very specific phone models.

There are quite a few drawbacks to this method of VR. The main one is that your phone isn’t really optimized for this use and so the experiences are pretty basic. Phones also don’t have the hardware for proper head motion tracking. They do an approximation, but you can’t lean into objects the way premium headsets allow you to. Phone screens are also not optimized for VR use, which can lead to some real image quality problems. It’s a quick way to try VR for very little money, but it’s not the best choice by far.

smartphone vr case

Standalone VR Headsets

Standalone headsets that don’t require any other device like a phone or tethered computer are still fairly new. They use high-end smartphone hardware to power themselves, but can produce much better VR because the components don’t have to be squeezed into a razor-thin smartphone body. That relieves thermal and power constraints. Moreover, resources are freed up from not having to be a phone. All efforts are focused on VR. Many standalone headsets have full head tracking, equalling tethered premium headsets.

These headsets have their own app ecosystems, much like smartphones. They are considerably less expensive than premium smartphones, yet always produce better results as VR devices, since they are built from the ground up to fulfill that role.

As a gamer, you’ll find plenty of excellent titles developed specifically for these headsets. It’s best to think of them as VR game consoles, each with their own exclusives and multiplatform releases.

Standalone/Tethered Hybrids

At the time of writing this is a brand new category, with only one or two high-end products falling into the category. Basically, these are standalone headsets that also allow you to tether them to a gaming PC. That’s obviously brilliant in the sense that you only have to buy one headset and then use it as a mobile and tethered solution.

The downside is that these headsets are super expensive right now, which means you could buy two headsets with the same money anyway. In the future, however, this will probably become a dominant design.

Controller Options

While a headset lets you see and hear the VR world, you need some way to interact with it and explore. That’s where controllers come in, and there are some really interesting choices here.

The most basic is the humble gamepad. For example, the first consumer edition of the Oculus Rift shipped with an Xbox One controller in the box. You play your games the same way you would on a console; the only difference being that the camera is controlled by your head movement rather than the right analogue stick on the controller.

Gamepad control is pretty convenient and it means you can play in VR by simply sitting down as usual. You can also use compatible gamepads with many mobile headsets, so it’s not just the tethered headset crowd that can benefit.

The other main options are motion controllers. There are many variations on these, but it’s generally a set of two controllers – one for each hand. The controllers have traditional buttons and sticks on them, but they also track your hand movements in real time. So you could use the stick on the controller to walk around, but can now use your virtual “hands” to pick up or move things around.

For games that put you in the cockpit of some sort of craft, you can also use a flight stick or steering wheel and pedals. There are few things as immersive as playing a racing or flight sim with the right gear.

There are also some exotic controllers that are still only meant for niche use. Glove controllers that track each finger perfectly were a common feature of early VR in the 90s, but they have not gone mainstream in this modern age of the medium. No one knows if they ever will. Omnidirectional treadmills looked promising as a home solution that lets you run around for real. However, it turns out they are too expensive and complicated, which has relegated them to VR arcades instead. There have, however, been some small-scale controllers that attach to shoes or have a simple plate you stand on, but these only approximate letting you walk around, with it being more of a shuffle in practice.

oculus controller

Tracking Options

Motion tracking is a key part of VR. It’s the technology that translated the motion of your real-life body to your in-game avatar.

There are several different technologies used for motion tracking in VR. Motion sensors, such as the ones found in smartphones and game controllers, can accurately measure linear motion and turns. When you use a smartphone-based VR headset, this is the only form of motion tracking in action. It’s a reasonable experience, but it’s no good for accurately tracking motion within 3D space. There are six directions along three axes for any object to move within 3D space. This is known as having six degrees of freedom, often abbreviated as “6DoF”.

The sort of tracking that’s lacking from most mobile VR is that axis that lets you lean in closer to an object. This is pretty hard to do well. The first generation of premium modern VR headsets used external tracking cameras. These special cameras see in a very specific wavelength invisible to the human eye. On the outside of the headset are lights that the camera can see clearly. By tracking the lights, it can tell with very high precision where your headset is within the 3D space the camera can see.

This method of tracking is starting to become somewhat obsolete, with new headsets having cameras on the headset itself. These cameras and other sensors scan the room around the user and then calculate 3D motion that way. It’s commonly referred to as “inside out” tracking; once you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to go back to clumsy camera systems.

One of the reasons inside-out tracking is so great comes down to scale. You can more easily do room-scale tracking, where the user can get up and move around freely. This is possible with external trackers as well. The Valve Lighthouse system has a pair of trackers that sweep the room with beams and track you that way. The inside-out method is, however, way more elegant and can work for mobile applications too, not just specially prepared rooms. My advice for new headset buyers is to try to go for a solution that uses inside-out tracking, depending on your needs and budget.

Headset Specifications

When it comes to VR headsets, there are a few key issues you have to consider. As I mentioned above, you really should try to get a headset that has six degrees of freedom for head tracking. Only basic mobile VR lacks this feature, so that should not be an issue in most cases.

The horizontal field of view is far more important. This describes how much the picture wraps around towards your peripheral vision. Humans have a natural horizontal field of view slightly in excess of 180 degrees. No current headset offers anywhere close to this, but there are minimum numbers you should look for to avoid feeling like a blinkered horse. The general consensus is that a FoV of 90 degrees is the least you need to be properly immersed. Modern headsets are starting to home in on 110 degrees, though, so that’s worth aiming for if you can afford it.

Screen resolution and type also matter. The screen should be low-persistence with at least a 1080 pixel vertical resolution per eye. Older headsets might have lower resolutions, but don’t go for those unless it’s a budget issue. The display should also be rated for at least 90Hz.

The last thing that really matters is whether you need glasses with a specific headset, as some allow adjustments that make glasses unnecessary if you wear them. It’s also pretty much essential that the headset allows you to adjust the IPD or interpupillary distance. If it doesn’t, you’re likely to end up with a fuzzy, out-of-focus picture.

Take the Red Pill

Now you should have enough information to make a pretty informed decision about how to spend your money when it comes to VR gear. It’s a dense market with lots of jargon, but all you have to do is cut to the main, essential issues and you’ll be just fine. Be sure to have a look at my VR headset reviews to see some good suggestions for all budgets.