The best VR headset, after a week at GDC

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We take a look at the big three VR headsets, after playing with them all week ...

We take a look at the big three VR headsets, after playing with them all week at the 2016 Game Developers' Conference (Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag) View gallery (10 images)

Not only did we have the privilege of using all three of the big VR headsets at GDC 2016, but we were able to spend over six hours with the Oculus Rift, four hours with PlayStation VR and more than an hour with the HTC Vive (and we've spent more hours since then using the Vive at home). If you're still trying to decide which VR headset is best for you, we've gathered some thoughts, observations and recommendations on how things stack up right now.

Games: Oculus brings the motherlode

We've seen some exciting game development for all three platforms, but the Oculus Rift has an uncommonly good – nay, uncommonly terrific – launch window lineup. It wins this category by a wide margin, with Lucky's Tale, Dead & Buried, Eve: Valkyrie, Edge of Nowhere, Chronos, The Climb, I Expect You to Die, Job Simulator and Damaged Core standing as just several of the potential killer games launching on the Rift – either on release day or later this year.

With that said, the Vive's early gaming library is no longer the blank slate/question mark that it was right after CES, when we picked the Rift as the best mostly due to its content advantage. StressLevelZero's multiplayer shooter Hover Junkers is going to be a killer game for the Vive, and the teleportation-based, first-person stealth game Budget Cuts, slated for late 2016, looks like another candidate. The Vive has a couple of outstanding cross-platform favorites in Job Simulator and Fantastic Contraption – both of which will be bundled with the headset – and Valve's mini-game collection The Lab will make for a nice (free) room-scale showcase for Vive early adopters. Even simple simulations like Selfie Tennis (think Wii Sports tennis for the VR age) can be absolutely captivating on the Vive.

Our favorite PlayStation VR demos we played at GDC were both gamepad-based: space MMO Eve: Valkyrie (also available for Rift) and trippy audio/visual wonderland Rez Infinite. We might have put Golem, Job Simulator and Wayward Sky on that list as well, but they all rely on Sony's terrible PlayStation Move motion controllers. More on that in a minute.

If a guaranteed wealth of games from the moment you buy the headset (and in the following months) is your top priority, then go with the Rift. The other two should be doing fine in this category too, and if all goes according to plan they'll flesh out high-quality gaming lineups before too long. But so far the Rift has shown us the best and deepest launch window lineup, bar none.

Room-scale VR: Viva la Vive!

Room-scale VR is where you get the best sense of feeling like you're someplace else, as you can immerse your entire body in the experience and react to things on a physical/visceral level. Standing experiences come close to this too. Seated/gamepad-based content (which the Rift will focus on exclusively at launch), while incredibly fun, doesn't feel quite as immersive.

At GDC we pushed more room-scale boundaries for the Rift than we had before, as I walked around my Oculus Touch demos in (in some cases) roughly a 7 x 5 ft. space without a single tracking issue.

The Vive is still, however, the better choice for room-scale. Its Chaperone system, which pops up a wall-like grid when you approach the edge of your playing space, is arguably a must-have safeguard for VR that you walk around inside. It also has a forward-facing camera that you'll be able to toggle at any time to get a quick view of your surroundings. If you're walking blindly around your living room, these things can save you from crashing into your wall or stepping on Fido's tail.

Oculus is also advising developers to track their games in 180 degrees, while the Vive's Lighthouse system uses 360-degree tracking at all times. The Rift will be able to support full 360 tracking, but that would require stringing a long cord from your PC to the opposite side of your playing space, and apparently Oculus would rather you didn't do that – at least not yet.

Most of my Oculus Touch demos reflected this, encouraging you to face in one direction for most (if not all) of the time. One exception was building game Fantastic Contraption. I walked around in all directions while creating my bizarre vehicle inside the game, and everything tracked perfectly. And yes, this was with two sensors sitting above the PC, facing in the same direction (180-degree tracking). I suspect all the hoo-ha on the Internet over the Rift's room-scale limitations has been drawn more out of theory than experience. Based on my demos (admittedly a small sample), I don't think the Rift's tracking capabilities in larger spaces are going to be a concern at all. The Vive's advantage here is as much about Chaperone and content that's built for room-scale as it is the full 360 thing.

Sony says PSVR will be able to scale to room-size as well, but, like the Rift, it also doesn't have anything like the Vive's Chaperone system to keep you from bumping into things. And until its controller concerns are remedied, it's hard to get excited about using the same shit-wands, only in a larger playing space.

Motion controllers: What is Sony thinking?

Good motion controllers give you hands inside virtual worlds, letting you pick up coffee mugs in Job Simulator, fire six-shooters in Dead & Buried or Hover Junkers, and swing a lightsaber like Obi Wan Kenobi in the Vive's Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine demo.

Both the Rift and Vive are in very good shape here, but the Rift's Oculus Touch controllers won't arrive until later this year – we heard that the September or October timeframe is worth keeping an eye on. Oculus Touch will also be a separate purchase from the US$599 Oculus Rift, while the $799 Vive ships with its two motion controllers ("Vive controllers") in the box.

Oculus Touch's form factor does have slightly better ergonomics: since the part you grip in your hand is a bit smaller, picking up smaller objects feels a hair more natural. But we don't want to exaggerate this minor difference: the Vive controllers are still nearly Oculus Touch's equal in this respect, to the point where we don't think it should be a factor in the Rift vs. Vive decision.

PlayStation VR's PS Move controllers are another matter altogether. We're baffled as to why Sony is recycling a pair of Wiimote-like controllers that first shipped in late 2010 – for a late 2016 virtual reality platform.

As its best-by date would suggest, PS Move's tracking accuracy is far below that of the Rift and Vive, to the point where its tech gets in the way of a high-quality experience. Trying to swing a sword in Golem was a laborious task: if you swing the Move controller too quickly, tracking goes completely to hell, and if you swing too slowly, you're now adapting your gameplay to the technology – ideally it's the other way around. And even when swinging slowly, they still track more like a Wiimote than the high-end Rift or Vive.

Sony's headset is the cheapest, and its PS4-powered visuals are going to be mid-ranged compared to the PC-powered Rift and Vive. We can live with that alone, as that doesn't necessitate its experience will be mid-ranged. But PlayStation Move is so bad, it actually creates something closer to a low-end experience. We're utterly perplexed that Sony, a company that has historically made console gaming as high-end as possible, is taking this cheap shortcut.

We aren't rooting against Sony's system. If its level of overall user-friendliness was similar to that of the Rift and Vive, it could make for the perfect mass adoption VR system. Unfortunately it's currently broken, with no signs that Sony is going to fix it before its October launch. If you're pre-ordering PSVR, you've been warned.

Glasses underneath: The Rift applies pressure

Forgetting my contact lenses at home before embarking on a weeklong trip to VR Land was annoying, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I got to test how all three headsets fared while wearing specs underneath.

The Vive and PlayStation VR each get an A in this class, as they allow you to adjust the distance between the lenses and your face, so you won't feel your glasses pressing into your face at all: they both feel perfectly comfortable with glasses on underneath. The Rift doesn't let you make this adjustment, and it can sometimes feel a little uncomfortable with glasses.

Keeping the straps loose on the Rift helps out, but even then I still felt more pressure on my nose than on the other two headsets. We don't see this as a deal-breaker for Rift owners, but if you wear glasses all or most of the time, know that the Vive and PSVR will be more comfortable.

Price: You get what you pay for (sometimes less)

Here's the breakdown of what each system will cost, in US dollars.

Headset:

Oculus Rift - $599

HTC Vive - $799

PlayStation VR - $399

Mothership:

Gaming PC for Oculus Rift - ~$950+

Gaming PC for HTC Vive - ~$950+

PS4 for PlayStation VR - $350

Motion controllers:

Oculus Touch for Rift - separate purchase, TBA price

Vive controllers - bundled w/headset

PS Move for PlayStation VR - $60 separately or bundle w/headset for $499

Sensors/trackers:

Oculus positional sensors - one bundled w/headset, one bundled w/Touch

Vive Lighthouse base stations - two bundled w/headset

PlayStation Camera for PlayStation VR - $50 separately or bundled w/headset/controllers for $499

Bundled games:

Oculus Rift - Lucky's Tale, Eve: Valkyrie

HTC Vive - Job Simulator, Fantastic Contraption, Tilt Brush (all limited time only)

PlayStation VR - PlayStation VR Worlds

Total package:

Oculus Rift - ~$1,499 without motion controllers (TBA with motion controllers)

HTC Vive - ~$1,699 with everything

PlayStation VR - $849 with everything

The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive cost a lot more than PSVR – in the Vive's case twice as much – and if you already own a PS4, that discrepancy is even wider. But based on our extended demo time at GDC, we can't even recommend PSVR right now, even when taking into account its much cheaper price.

The Rift launches at $200 cheaper than the Vive, but remember that the Vive's motion controllers are included in the box, while the Rift's Oculus Touch will be a separate purchase closer to the holidays. This is entirely speculation, but we wouldn't be surprised if Oculus Touch rang up for around $150-200, making this more or less a wash.

The Rift does have built-in headphones, which makes for a very nice, streamlined, all-in-one product. The Vive includes a pair of earbuds, though you can also just plug in your own headphones. We aren't too worried about the Vive's setup, but there is something to be said for the Rift's put product on head, start playing, unified simplicity.

The best VR headset, post-GDC

We see PSVR as falling waaaaay behind the Rift and Vive, so you can already cross it off the "Best VR Headset" list. You can also cross it off the "Best VR Headset Value" list, a category it should have run away with.

That leaves the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, two amazing headsets that we wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone. The easy way out would be to declare a tie, the Rift leaning more towards those who want a stronger early game lineup and aren't as concerned about room-scale, the Vive leaning towards those who want the more versatile hardware that lets you safely walk around larger spaces.

No product recommendation should be one-size-fits-all – that would assume we're all the same – but our "Best VR headset" this time goes to the HTC Vive. The biggest reason we picked the Rift right after CES was because we still hadn't seen much in the way of games for the Vive, and we had already seen many of the Rift's awesome titles. But all it took was playing a few finished or near-finished games that show off room-scale on the Vive for us to see it as the headset with the slightly higher ceiling.

At launch the Rift is more focused on traditional games that happen to be in VR, while the Vive has some amazing games that encapsulate virtual reality in the most literal sense. The more we experience room-scale, the more it seems like the ultimate destination.

The big asterisk is that you're going to have a shallower pool of high-quality games to play on the Vive at the beginning. We're fairly comfortable giving the Vive the benefit of the doubt there, though, being a Valve/SteamVR product (we hear they know a thing or two about gaming). While significant at launch, we don't expect this game library discrepancy to be a big issue in the long run.

Just don't mistake our recommendation as being a bigger difference than it is. We could have easily justified picking the Rift, based on that second-to-none launch window lineup. At GDC, the magical Vive just knocked our socks off a hair more than the magical Rift did.

We'll also revisit this after reviewing both headsets. Once we play the full games at home over longer periods of time, this could change.

For more, you can hit up our GDC hands-ons with the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR.

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