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Man wearing a VR headset

Are Virtual Reality Headsets Still a Thing?

Spoiler alert: They are

I admit I tend to gather a lot of gadgets. While rooting through a drawer recently, I noticed a bulky box containing a VR mobile headset that came with my Samsung Galaxy S7 a few years ago. Not being much of a gamer, this was my first immersive 3D experience outside of a movie theater. The device seemed like the coolest thing at the time, soaring over canyons or walking through virtual galleries (and bumping into furniture in real life). But I soon ran out of free VR programming that was pre-indexed, and was not motivated enough to root around for more or purchase any.

Here are some reasons VR headsets haven’t really taken off in the past.

Sluggish Adoption
Apparently, I am not alone. Without enough software, apps or content. VR headsets never really took off. Even gamers report VR headsets were too uncomfortable to wear for long-running games. As a result, there was not enough user base to warrant a high level of development.

VR companies also kind of limited themselves by making too many proprietary brands that are not compatible with each other. If a more universal platform would have been adopted and built upon, more content would have been developed to work on any device, and likely acceptance by the market would have come sooner. Or that’s the theory anyway.

The user experience used to be disappointing
There has traditionally been a lot of hype around the next big release in VR, especially for gamers. Users who were expecting dynamic scenes and super sharp images instead were delivered what one reviewer on aptly called “…somewhere between your expectations and a disappointment.”

VR headset

VR can make you sick
The more time you spend in virtual reality, the more you lose special awareness of the actual room you are in and the things in it (hence me tripping over the ottoman). Some VR made people nauseous, or caused falling accidents. Extended time in VR can cause blackouts or epileptic seizures, even in people that have never had one before. Makers of the most popular VR headsets, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, recommend taking “at least a 10 to 15-minute break every 30 minutes, even if you don’t think you need it.” Not so convenient if you are looking for a device to watch a 3D movie.

These are some of the things lacking in VR technology from just a couple of years ago.

But yet…
We are promised that amazing new developments are coming, and the technology will take off (hmm…sounds sorta familiar). However, there is just something so appealing about the thought of my own advanced virtual reality device and immersing myself in a film like “Walking New York” by French artist JR. Watching some of this year’s VR demos kind of even makes me want to pick up a virtual light saber and play a game.

In fact, we are seeing a resurgence in 2020 because of vastly improved technology, addressing some of the ills mentioned above.

Last year, the wireless Oculus Quest for gamers came out. Still clunky, the device has an easy set up and operation, with built in audio. Insight trackers translate your body movements into the virtual reality space, so you can turn in any direction and have better spatial awareness. There are intuitive and realistic touch controllers, so hand gestures move with vastly improved precision.

Game content continues to improve by leaps and bounds, like the uber realistic Half-Life: Alyx, built for the Valve Index, but also plays nicely with Vive, Rift and Windows Mixed Reality.

Yes, VR is still a thing
VR is also very much in transition this year because of vast improvements in the chips contained in most VR headsets.

Even though my old phone-based Samsung Gear VR is a dead dinosaur, expect to see small stand-alone headsets that plug into your phone among the wave of new devices. These smaller and lighter devices will save costs by tapping into the phone’s 5G, which is great for a non-gamer not willing to plunk down $500 to $1,200 for another device.

Nearly all of the chips that power current standalone VR and AR headsets are made by Qualcomm. Reference design prototypes hint at what is coming next: a 5G VR headset with eye tracking and multiple cameras blending AR into VR, plus 6DoF (six degrees of freedom) hand controllers and 2Kx2K pixel resolution for each eye. With upgraded chipsets, we’ll see 5G headsets via both mmWave and sub-6 GHz networks. Devices will be able to render graphics in the cloud or connect wirelessly over 60GHz with PCs.

Current reality
Here is a list of the newest VR headsets available today from Wired magazine. Note that many of the top models sold out quickly during our nationwide COVID-19 quarantine, so you might have to shop around for availability and best price, or wait a few weeks.

The post-pandemic reviews from users should be interesting. I know when I put on the newest 5G VR headset, I want to be immersed in another world, and I want it to be believable. Don’t you?

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