Virtual reality is now, well, a reality. We’re nearing ever closer to the full retail release of the high-profile VR headsets — i.e. the HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, and Oculus Rift — and it seems each week brings with it a new look at one of the many exciting and imaginative experiences currently in development for each platform.
However, all that work and technology brings with it one major caveat: price. These upcoming headsets will likely be quite expensive, and that’s before you factor in the need for specialized controllers and a powerful PC or gaming console.
Of course, as time goes on, this burgeoning tech will likely become better and cheaper, but what about right now? Truth be told, you can easily experience the mind-bending of VR right now at entry-level prices.
Before we jump into the list, it’s important to note that each of the following devices uses your smartphone as a display. Thanks to high dpi numbers, smartphones make a great screen for VR. Certain headsets only support specific devices, though, so be sure to check whether your smartphone is compatible before making your decision. The quality of VR experience is also dependent on the power of your smartphone. Less powerful phones may be unable to run certain apps well, or at all, in some cases.
Samsung Gear VR ($99)
The Rift isn’t the only headset Oculus has put its weight behind. Samsung’s Gear VR has been around in numerous forms for a while now, but the consumer version will finally get full release in November. This final version will be compatible with the Note 5, S6, S6 Edge, S6 Edge Plus smartphones from Samsung, and will feature its own marketplace for games, videos, and apps. That may seem like a limited number of devices, but keep in mind these phones are the best Samsung has to offer, so they will be able to handle the resource-intensive apps and games curated for the Gear VR.
November is just around the corner, but if you just can’t stomach the wait any longer, there are “Innovator editions” available that support either the Note 4 or the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. They’re technically pre-consumer beta devices and don’t feature the same specs as the final version, and moreover, they tend to be more expensive depending on the retailer. With the imminent release of the Gear VR consumer edition so close, it could be hasty to buy the innovator edition.
Available at: Amazon
Freefly is another high-quality VR headset, much like the Samsung Gear VR. However, unlike Gear VR, Freefly is compatible with a wide range of both iOS and Android devices. The headset can be adjusted to account for different phone dimensions and head sizes, too, and offers a 110-degree field of view designed for full immersion. The bundled app will help you properly align your phone, and moreover, will act as a curated store for apps, games, and videos. Freely even includes its Glide controller in the box, which is more of a TV remote than gampad. That said, you’ll likely need a different controller for certain games.
Google Cardboard (Free to $30+)
We hesitate to call this simple VR setup a “headset” — after all, it is a handheld piece of cardboard construction. However, Google Cardboard gets big props simply because it’s free. Well, the instructions to build it yourself are, at least. There’s also a multitude of pre-fab versions you can buy that vary in price in case you don’t feel like tracking down the materials and going through the steps to assemble your headset yourself. Either way, you’ll be able to slide your smartphone in to act as a display, and start experiencing VR immediately through whatever VR apps are currently available for your phone.
The Immerse lives up to its rock-bottom price tag. The headset is affordable, drastically reducing the barrier for experiencing VR first-hand. However, the Immerse lacks many of the features and perks of more expensive devices, even if it does tout an adjustable design and compatibility with plenty of iOS and Android devices. The overall package offers nothing that particularly stands out, but if you’re curious about VR and want something sturdier than cardboard, it’s a reasonable entry-level headset.
Much like Immerse, the Archos is an extremely affordable option for those interested in a quick taste of what VR has to offer. The apps are limited and the overall experience lags behind that of many of the other entries on our list — not to mention the more expensive headsets from Sony, HTC, and Oculus — but for such an inexpensive product, it provides a decent introduction to VR. Hopefully, it will be enough to tide you over until you can afford the upcoming Samsung VR, or one of the more expensive and more powerful headsets next year.
Available this November