The recent trend in consumer VR headsets has taken off. Just as a drone is a pretty typical thing to own now, virtual reality can be in your hands just as easily.
Folks maybe have been lucky enough to get their hands on heavy hitters in VR like the acclaimed Oculus Rift & HTC Vive, but some of us just want to get in on the fun before we shell out for the premium buys.
Whether you’ve been on the hunt for good VR that’s compatible with your phone, or maybe you’re just the ultimate procrastinator and are relying heavily on overnight shipping for a fun holiday gift this year – we’ve tried out three different smartphone VR headsets, from three different budgets to help you choose the best VR experience for you.
Google Cardboard $15
The cheapest of our three headsets, but not in quality! The humble looking cardboard headset (yes, it’s really JUST cardboard) packs a relatively big experience.
The cardboard goggles, that at first seem like the packaging itself, whimsically and swiftly unfold into your very own VR headset with easy-to-follow steps appearing, inscribed on the inside of the device once unfolded. The only thing not crafted of cardboard on this thing is the magnetic switch that helps you control and select once in the experience.
In place of adjustable straps, like with most headsets, Google Cardboard offers an approriately humble solution – a rubber band. A sturdy-feeling rubber band, but not the comfiest thing to wear, especially not universal. We felt it was more comfortable to just hold it up to your face with your hand, which may take away from the glamour a little, but how much can you really ask for when the main attraction is cardboard and the entire thing costs less than lunch?
And that’s really the crux of Google Cardboard – you can’t set high expectations like that of the Oculus or any other premium VR experience because it’s not that, it’s not trying to be (although, it will exceed your expectations). What Google Cardboard does best is dish out a decent virtual experience for anyone interested in getting in on the fun, with it’s cheap as dirt price and it’s digestible technology.
On to the experience! As is the nature of smartphone VR, to begin you’ve got to download the proper app or apps. Luckily, for this headset, a plethora of VR apps are compatible – we used the standard Cardboard app for our first try.
The app uses Google Earth to first establish where you are geographically, and suddenly you’re immersed in a familiar, albeit slightly janky, re-creation of your live environment. It doesn’t pinpoint the room you’re in, per say, but it did pinpoint the area of downtown Chicago we were in, which once I registered that I was hovering over Millenium Park, was kind of cool. You move about the environment by diverting your gaze. Look left, the environment moves left. Look down the environment shifts down. Once you start to look up, the environment will prompt you – “fly to space” – well, who could turn down that offer?
Simply press down on your the magnetic toggle to launch yourself into the clouds. Once in space, you’re hovering over a rendering of earth. Again, a janky rendering that apparently only recognizes a few regions, but kinda cool none the less. You have the option to fly into certain regions they’ve augmented and move through them as you did your own virtual environment. As you move away from where they plop you you’ll notice a significant lag in visuals. While it is generating as you go, it can be slow. But we’ll give the headset the benefit of the doubt and maybe chalk that up to office wifi.
Merge VR $60-80
The Merge Virtual Reality headset is aptly described as “VR for the masses.” The cushy foam goggles sit comfortably on the face, and your Apple or Samsung phone slips easily into the headset without you really feeling the weight while wearing it.
It’s interesting to note that this headset was the only out of the three that offered an adjustable focus via knobs, which proved pretty nifty while switching the headset back and forth amongst ourselves. We also noticed at this points that the graphics of experience were crisper than Google Cardboard.
Like many VR experiences and games, you select things by staring at them. It sounds more straining than it is – you’re simply moving your eye line around the experience and when you land on something for a moment, you’ve selected it. The visual equivalent of clicking.
Of all the graphics, the capabilities of the Merge, to us at least, surpassed Google Cardboard, and even the more expensive One Zeiss. Using Merge’s suggested app, we opted to play a game – a sort of Galaga-inspired space game, but with elevated graphics and a little more to do. It didn’t feel like enough to sit in a chair and swivel around aiming for the asteroids and other ships, we felt the need to get up and actually walk around (maybe running into the wall once or twice.)
Every once in a while an ad would pop up in the game, between levels. If the ads have to be there, they do a good job of making them tolerable, making each one appear as though it’s part of the experience.
After playing and couple games, we came to the conclusion that Merge offered a little bit of everything – comfort, entertaining experience, intuitive usability – and all at a great price.
Zeiss VR One Plus $129
It could be argued that after being somewhat impressed by the two cheaper models, I had high expectations for the pricier model we were trying out. The Zeiss VR One promises to immerse you into whole new worlds, but kind of just flopped, in our humble opinion.
First, lets talk about the quality. At a glance, the Zeiss is a sleeker looking headset to what we’ve tried here, appearing more like what we envisioned when we think “virtual reality,” including heftier straps than the other models for comfortable wear (although, not as comfy as Merge).
There are two distinct differences with this headset – it offers no controls (as the other two did), but it does provide a smartphone tray that slips in and out. The tray mechanism itself is a little clumsy. It instructs you to line up your phone perfectly. And oh they mean it. Without lining the phone up just right, the VR functionality just wasn’t working for us, which was a little frustrating.
The Zeiss offers two of it’s own apps compatible with the headset (although compatible with other VR apps, excluding Cardboard, which was kind of a letdown) and both apps fell short in delivering a truly virtual experience. So as far as demoing your product in an impressive way, Zeiss loses points here.
Zeiss VR One AR is the first app we tried, in which you hold a cube that the device comes with in front of the headset while wearing it. Each side of the cube has a colorful pattern and a cue word, like “imagine” or “create”. When the headset registers each side, a little, augmented creature appears. And that’s it. We lost our interest in this after, maybe a minute? With no other activities from that app, we moved onto the next.
Zeiss’s VR One Cinema app is a little different in that it places you in a virtual theater (and there are apparently other people in it) where you can view your phone’s camera roll or saved videos. Cues appear before you and, like Merge, you simply stare to make a selection. Useful, but again, this didn’t hold our interest for very long.
We can’t be too hard on the Zeiss, we know there are many other VR apps out there that have potential with this headset, but for the purposes of this try-out, we wanted to test each headset using their given apps. Even though the Zeiss One is still on the lower end of the price spectrum in the VR industry, for $130 it should at least provide an experience that stacks up to it’s cheaper competitors.
Merge was by far the best experience we had of the three. Google Cardboard comes in as our close second, especially for the price. Zeiss simply fell short, considering it’s cheaper counterparts outperformed it.
In the end, if you’re looking for an affordable VR option in your life, you’ve found it in Merge.