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Getting started with Virtual Reality

CES has arrived, and that means the biggest technological innovations of tomorrow are front-page news. In the world of gaming, the future looks to be defined by virtual reality. VR, as it’s also known, is a new, more immersive way to interact with games, employing head-mounted displays (also called goggles or headsets) and special controllers to make players feel as though they’re actually inside a virtual world.

Living on the cutting edge can be daunting, however, so we’ve put together a simple guide covering the basics of how to take advantage of the latest advancements in VR tech.

There are three main ways to dive into virtual reality, each offering its own advantages and costs.

Companies such as Samsung and Google have built VR solutions that use your phone as a screen, making it the cheapest method of entry and the easiest to use.

If you are willing to spend more, check out Sony’s PlayStation VR. By making use of the PlayStation 4 gaming console, the PlayStation VR offers experiences that are much deeper and visually impressive than those you’ll find on your phone, and you won’t need a PC to run them.

The final route to VR is to buy a headset that is compatible with high-end gaming PCs. While they’ll cost you a pretty penny and require some know-how to set up, the experience they provide is on the cutting edge of virtual reality.

The future is calling: VR on your phone

The main advantage of a phone-based VR setup is cost. These headsets are by far the cheapest, since your phone is doing most of the heavy lifting, Odds are good that you already have a smartphone that will work.

The two main contenders in this space are Google and Samsung, but there’s a big difference between the two. Samsung’s offering, the Samsung Gear VR headset, works only with some Samsung phones. Currently compatible phones include the Galaxy S7, Galaxy S7 Edge, Galaxy Note5, Galaxy S6 Edge+, Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge.

Google, on the other hand, offers two different approaches. The first, Google Cardboard, works with a variety of Android and iOS phones and offers low-cost headsets from a variety of manufacturers. While some are actually made out of cardboard, sturdier options, such as the Merge 360, won’t fall apart easily but are still affordable. The Merge even has its own set of compatible apps, in addition to the Google Cardboard–compatible apps it supports.

Google’s second option is called Daydream. It requires a slightly more expensive headset that’s available directly from Google and works only on a handful of phones, including the Moto Z family of phones and the company’s own Pixel line.

Whichever option you choose, setup is simple: Download whatever app or apps are required, pop your phone into the goggles and place the goggles on your head.

Living room of tomorrow: VR on your PlayStation 4

In the market for something a little more in-depth and interactive than phone-based VR? Last year, Sony launched the PlayStation VR, an add-on to its popular PlayStation 4 gaming console. This more substantial VR experience doesn’t punish your wallet or overcomplicate the technology involved.

Only a small selection of PlayStation 4 games support or require the PlayStation VR. Those that do will have a clear label on the front of the game box. If the PlayStation VR is required, as with Batman: Arkham VR, the label will say “PlayStation VR Game.” If the PlayStation VR is not required but the game still includes optional VR content, as with Resident Evil 7, the label will read “PlayStation VR Mode Included.”

All you need to get started with the PlayStation VR is a PlayStation 4 console, the PlayStation VR headset, a PlayStation 4 camera and, ideally, one or more PlayStation Move motion controllers. Longtime PlayStation gamers probably have the console and a few of those items already.

If you’re interested in some extra graphical bells and whistles, some PlayStation VR games benefit from the added horsepower of the more powerful PS4 Pro console. Generally, though, any model of PS4 works just fine with the PlayStation VR.

Once you’ve got everything in the package, follow the simple setup instructions included with the PlayStation VR headset and get ready to play.

The high-end life: VR on your PC

If you’re interested in going all out for your VR setup, you have two main options: the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. Both headsets have broadly similar functionality, though they differ slightly in the technology they use and what you’ll need to buy to get the full experience.

The Oculus Rift sells the headset separately from its Touch motion controllers, letting you decide whether you want the added immersion of hand tracking. It’s completely possible to buy just the Rift itself and play a wide selection of games using the included Xbox One controller or your keyboard and mouse. If you’d like the full experience, you can add the Touch motion controllers to feel as though you’re interacting more directly with the virtual world.

As for the HTC Vive, the headset, the controllers and the tracking boxes that follow your movement all come bundled together in one complete package. That means you’ll only need to make one purchase to get the full experience as it exists now. However, HTC announced at CES 2017 that future upgrades are on the way, including a new head strap with built-in audio and a device that allows you to track real-world objects, such as a baseball bat or a tennis racket, in supported games.

Most games support both the Vive and the Rift, though Oculus has negotiated some exclusives and even funds the development of some games in-house, meaning there’s no chance they’ll ever appear on a competing system. A list of compatible games for each headset can be found online: For the Rift, you’ll want to head to the official Oculus site; for the Vive, you’ll need to check out Steam, the digital distribution platform owned by HTC’s VR partner, Valve Software.

Of course, the headset and controllers are only part of the system. No matter which you choose, you’ll still need a gaming-capable PC to run it. Because VR experiences can be graphically demanding, you might need something more powerful than your current system.

Oculus recommends the following PC hardware for the best experience on the Rift:

  • Graphics card: NVIDIA GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon RX 480 equivalent or greater; or NVIDIA GTX 970 / AMD Radeon R9 290 or greater
  • CPU: Intel i5-4590 equivalent or greater
  • Memory: 8GB RAM or more
  • Video output: Compatible HDMI 1.3 video output
  • USB: 3x USB 3.0 ports plus 1x USB 2.0 port
  • Operating system: Windows 7 SP1 64 bit or newer

For the Vive, HTC recommends the following:

  • Graphics card: NVIDIA GTX 1060 or AMD Radeon RX 480 equivalent or greater
  • CPU: Intel i5-4590 or AMD FX 8350 equivalent or greater
  • Memory: 4GB RAM or more
  • Video output: 1x HDMI 1.4 port, or DisplayPort 1.2 or newer
  • USB: 1x USB 2.0 port or newer
  • Operating system: Windows 7 SP1, Windows 8.1 or later or Windows 10

Both lists are quite similar, and they both mean you’ll need a PC with quite a bit of oomph behind it to run VR smoothly. If you’re in the market to buy a new computer outright, the easiest solution is to buy a prebuilt gaming desktop or gaming laptop, paying careful attention that the hardware specifications meet the headset’s minimum requirements.

Players who are more familiar with PC hardware can also upgrade their current system or build a new one from scratch by buying individual components, though they’ll still want to be careful to mind the hardware requirements.