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What Is a Virtual Reality Headset, and Why Would I Want One?

Jason O. Gilbert
Technology Editor
Yahoo Tech
March 21, 2014

What Is a Virtual Reality Headset, and Why Would I Want One?

Jason O. Gilbert
Technology Editor
Yahoo Tech
March 21, 2014

If you’ve ever wanted to really get your head in the game, you’ll have the chance soon. Virtual reality headsets are coming. 

On Tuesday evening Sony unveiled a new, futuristic virtual reality headset called Project Morpheus. It’s not the first of its kind: It looks and works like the Oculus Rift, a much-hyped virtual-reality headset from the startup Oculus VR.

And then on Wednesday, Oculus VR made its own news: It revealed its newest version of the Oculus Rift. It’s still only meant for developers, and not yet the general buying public. The upgraded Rift featured a crisper screen and faster performance than previous models. It raised hopes that a final model would be available soon.

So it was a big week for virtual reality headsets. But what exactly is a virtual reality headset? Let’s catch you up.

What is a virtual reality game headset?
A virtual reality (or VR) headset is a device that you wear over your eyes like a pair of goggles. It blocks out all external light and shows you an image on high-definition screens in front of your eyes. The goal of the VR headset is to immerse you in a game. In VR games, your point of view is your character’s point of view; most VR headsets track your head movement, so that wherever you look, your character looks, too. If done well, you’ll feel like you are inside the game.

These headsets are not consoles on their own. They must be connected by a cable to a gaming system—a computer for the Oculus Rift, or a PlayStation 4 for Sony’s Morpheus. 

To play the game, you hold a traditional gaming controller in your hands to manipulate your character’s movements, moving a joystick to walk forward, and pressing a button to shoot a gun, for example. But since all you can see is what your character sees, and since moving your head controls where the character is looking, the game can become very lifelike and completely envelop your sight and hearing.

I’ve used one: It can be incredibly disorienting, and it removes the barrier of staring at a monitor or a TV screen. You really feel like you are your gaming character. (And you have no idea what you look like when you play.)

Who makes virtual-reality headsets?
Oculus VR is the most well-known maker. It started as a Kickstarter project in 2012 and now stands as an emblem of what gaming could be like in the future. A final version, complete with a game marketplace, could be out by the end of the year. Oculus hasn’t announced a price, though developer’s kits cost $350.

Aside from Oculus, Sony’s recent announcement of Project Morpheus makes the PlayStation maker the next most notable player. A Sony executive said Morpheus would sync up with the PlayStation 4, and Sony’s PlayStation Move motion tracker and gaming controller, but did not announce a price or a release date. The popular game maker Valve is also working on a headset.

OK, what are the downsides?
A bad VR experience can literally make you sick. If the image you’re seeing in your glasses doesn’t move in perfect sync with your head’s movements, you can get motion sickness. It can be mild, which can limit the time you’ll want to play, or so severe that you can’t play at all if you want to keep your stomach’s contents in their place. You need near-perfect head-tracking technology and very fast 3D processing to eliminate nausea caused by image lag.  

Also, your head gets really sweaty, which can make a headset uncomfortable.

There aren’t very many games quite yet. No major company has finished its hardware or software.

Right now, these helmets are cool concepts—close to finished concepts, but still concepts—which can run impressive demos. But neither Morpheus nor Oculus Rift represent a complete gaming ecosystem at this point, the way that an Xbox, a PlayStation, or a gaming PC does.

Haven’t we tried this before and failed spectacularly?
Yes! As Nick Wingfield of The New York Times put it, “Technologists have tried to deliver convincing virtual reality experiences for decades, but the technology has been clunky.” You might remember Nintendo’s red-tinted Virtual Boy, from 1995, or unfortunate ’90s relics like CyberMaxx or iglasses. Every VR gaming headset released so far has failed.

So what’s different now?
Technology has gotten much, much better since 1995. Head-tracking and motion-sensing tools register instantaneously so there’s no lag between where you move and what you see, which reduces motion sickness dramatically. And today’s VR screens are super high-definition and immersive, where they used to be pixelated and blurry. In the 1990s, virtual-reality was a pipe dream. Computing and imaging have now advanced far enough that a headset, together with headphones, really can simulate a convincing reality in front of your eyes.

So when can I buy one of these things?
Oculus VR is putting the finishing touches on its Rift and courting developers to write games for it. Sony and Valve, meanwhile, presumably still have a lot of work to do to finalize their own offerings.

There’s still hope that the Oculus Rift will be out by the end of the year. Realistically, though, we might be a year or so away from strapping on eyemask-looking virtual gaming headsets in our own living rooms. Until then, you’ll just have to look silly playing video games the old fashioned way: by screaming at your television and throwing your controller to the floor in a huff. 

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