May 10, 2015

Oculus VR, the Facebook-owned company behind the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, has announced a rough launch date for the consumer edition of its device. In a blog post on May 6, 2015, the company stated the consumer version of the Oculus Rift is slated for the first quarter of 2016. However, due to the significant delay between their 2012 Kickstarter campaign, as well as increasing consumer interest in virtual reality technology, many competitors have sprung up eager to claim some of the VR market. HTC, Samsung, and Sony have all announced competing virtual reality headsets to date, with HTC’s and Samsung’s offerings set to release before the Rift.

With nearly four years between the campaign which raised $2.4 million for Oculus and the release of its first product geared towards consumers, the hype for a modern virtual reality headset has been slowly building up. Competitors have been eager to launch their own headsets, with the Samsung Gear VR released in December 2014, and the HTC Vive and Sony Morpheus in November 2015 and “the first half of 2016”, respectively. However, despite similarities between the products, several key differences exist.

Firstly, the only headset which will be compatible with consoles at this time will be the Sony Morpheus, which will work with the Playstation 4. Xbox One owners are out of luck, with Microsoft yet to announce any plans for its console. Samsung Gear VR is similarly restricted to the company’s S6, S6 Edge, and Note 4 phones. The remaining two, the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, are both compatible with PC only.

When talking about the performance of virtual reality headsets, only two quantifiable specifications matter: refresh rate and resolution. Resolution is simply the number of pixels in the display of the headset, while refresh rate is slightly more difficult to explain. In modern LCDs (liquid crystal displays), any input to the display is given by the computer as “frames”, or individual pictures that make up the video. It is up to the display to redraw the frame in order to create video. The more times the image is redrawn, the smoother a video appears. Refresh rate is measured in Hertz, or the number of times the image is redrawn per second. Typical LCDs have a refresh rate of 60Hz, however due to issues with motion sickness all virtual reality headsets except for the Samsung Gear VR use displays with refresh rates of 90Hz or greater.

The other specification, resolution, is typically given as a number followed by p, where the number is the number of pixels on the vertical axis of the display (for example 1080p has 1080 pixels on the vertical display), or by AxB, where A is the number of pixels on the horizontal axis and B is the number of pixels on the vertical axis (for example 1920×1080). In the case of virtual reality headsets, a large resolution is essential due to the tiny distance between the eyes of the user and the display. At lower resolutions, humans can see the individual pixels, distracting them from the effect of reality. Although it is unclear exactly what resolution is required for this phenomenon to stop occurring, the Samsung Gear VR uses a 2560×1440 display, with the Sony Morpheus using only a 1920×1080 display, and the HTC Vive two 1080×1200 screens, one for each eye. The resolution of the Oculus Rift Consumer Edition has not been announced yet, however 2560×1440 is being rumoured. (For reference, modern HD televisions often have resolutions of 1920×1080).

As pricing has not been announced for the four devices, it is impossible to compare them based on that criterion. However, due to their different intended markets the competition may not be as fierce as it may seem. The Samsung Gear VR and Sony Morpheus both are the only headsets for their respective devices, and the only PC headsets as of yet are the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. Both will have their benefits, the Rift the benefit of much more R&D (it has been in development since early 2012 at least), however the Vive will have the backup of Valve and its Steam service, as well as the much larger R&D budget and team of HTC. As such, the winner of the virtual reality war could be anyone at this point.


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