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Want virtual reality, but don’t want a Rift? Don’t worry — you’ve plenty of options

Virtual reality is clearly an emerging market, with its competitive landscape incessantly proving it to be a viable platform for application developers in a wide array of fields, both intended for the professional and the entertainment consumer. While major players like Facebook and HTC hog the headlines, independent companies like StarVR are taking a different approach, and may hold the real key to innovation.

Of course, with the inevitable saturation that’s likely to ensue from so many contenders taking a stab at VR synchronously, there are a few companies out there that may go overlooked in the midst of all the buildup. Absent the creative drainage commonly associated with large corporations, these companies are presented with the opportunity to try something new, taking risks that Facebook wouldn’t dare attempt with the Oculus Rift — to the impending dismay of its stockholders.

Affordability

Oculus has a lot to offer in terms of functionality. But, to the vast majority of consumers, price is a crucial factor in determining which VR headset to buy. Without a gaming PC already in hand, you’ll end up paying upwards of $1,500 for virtual reality, which is far more than most people can afford.

Fortunately, there are a number of solutions for those who’d rather opt for VR gaming on the cheap — and without being bounded by an expensive rig. Among these is Freefly VR, which runs about $80 on its amusingly sardonic website. Unlike some of the heavier hitters out there, Freefly promises a compact, portable experience where “within seconds” you can “escape the bad times,” using nothing but a smartphone and a lightweight headset.

Freefly

Alternatively, the French company Homido aims to accomplish similar goals with its $80 headwear, which can be purchased through Amazon in the states. Distinguishing itself from other names in hardware, Homido stresses comfort and convenience over cutting-edge technology.

For the modest price, it’s a fair trade off, especially if you’re like me and wear prescription glasses. As peculiar as it might sound, some VR headsets, such as the increasingly popular StarVR, are forgoing consideration for glasses-wearers, instead opting to spearhead higher pixel counts and wider fields of view.

Like Freefly, Homido is designed for portability, but it also features 360-degree headtracking, enabling you to view supported content in every direction.

Moreover, it’s compatible with iOS, Android, and Windows Phone, although Homido warns that content is extremely limited on devices without a built-in gyroscope or accelerometor. Because head-tracking is a trademark feature of Homido, don’t expect to do much gaming with a mobile device devoid of motion sensor technology. Luckily, Homido brings support for 3D video in addition to apps and games.

Another contender, Visus VR, is on the pricier side at $149 (previously $99, but that price has risen for an undisclosed reason). However, it’s notably more affordable than Oculus “while delivering the same level of performance,” co-founder Taron Lizagub assured us in an email.

And, on top of that, Visus, unlike Freefly — or even Oculus for that matter — is the first wireless VR headset to be used in conjuction with PC. It differs distinctly from Freefly and Homido in that it’s not designed for casual smartphone gaming.

Instead, it was developed with “big mainstream games” like Call of Duty and Battlefield in mind. This differentiates Visus from Oculus and HTC, who Lizagub says are “completely focused on having new native VR games developed specifically for them by independent small gaming studios.”

Low Hardware Requirements

While Oculus Rift requires a GTX 970/AMD 290 or better, and SteamVR is expected to demand similarly high hardware requirements, Fove promises triple-A quality rendering support on even low-end PCs.

This, project manager Yamato Kaneko tells us, is because Fove uses a technology called “foveated rendering,” a term that stems from fovea, the center of the eye’s retina, “where the graphics engine allocates rendering resources only to the area users are focusing [on].”

Fove

Simply put, foveated rendering allows the game to render at a high resolution only what’s being observed on display. For instance, if you’re looking at a character in-game, the background, the environments — everything else except that character — will be rendered at a lower resolution.

Because you’re not looking at that one character anyway, it won’t matter that its surroundings are obscured. It’s a clever way to cut down on system resources without hindering the visual fidelity of the game. Microsoft researched this technique in 2012, and found it can offer a five-fold decrease in the hardware required to reach a given level of quality.

Fove hopes to decrease the hardware requirements of VR without compromising quality.

Foveated rendering is made possible only by the company’s implementation of eye-tracking technology. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that when I asked Mr. Kaneko about the advantage of Fove over competing head-mounted displays, he simply responded, “The short answer is, because FOVE is [the] only VRHMD which has eye-tracking technology.”

Because of this unique eye-tracking tech, not only can you run high-end games on low-end hardware, but impressively, in-game objects can be selected and controlled in 3D space “very accurately” at the speed of thought.

Fove even makes it possible to make eye contact with in-game virtual characters, potentially allowing for more intimate and emotional dialogue between characters.

When the Rift is not enough

While the Rift is technologically impressive, it doesn’t have a monopoly on innovation. Visus, for example, delivers an appeal that can’t be found elsewhere. Taking advantage of Tridef’s 3D conversion software, which notably sets consumers back an extra $30, practically any game can bring virtual reality to Visus, converting entire Steam libraries to nearly seamless virtual VR experiences, with approximately 27 milliseconds of latency.

With Oculus, Lizagub tells us, games have “to be completely re-written based on their SDK with native VR support.” This, in turn, creates confusion with executives of mainstream video game publishers about how VR should be adopted without causing a financial burden.

Visus smartphone

Visus, on the other hand, comes with no strings attached for developers. No one has to touch the game’s code. Rather, Tridef comes with a variety of presets for automatically converting most games donning DirectX to a stereoscopic 3D format, along with a generic preset for games not natively supported by the software.

“So, even though Oculus is set to launch in 1Q of 2016, there is no word on the VR adaptation by mainstream games which might take years,” Lizagub says. “But with Visus, we are officially supporting mainstream games through our advanced PC-powered VR headset and the powerful Tridef 3D conversion software.”

Visus uses a smartphone as an external monitor, and uses Nvidia’s wireless GameStream technology.

Visus uses the smartphone as a kind of external monitor, employing Nvidia’s wireless GameStream technology and promising “high-fidelity, low-latency” PC gaming on a mobile device, projected onwards to your VR headset.

While its utility might be undermined by its complexity, it’s nonetheless impressive to see an independent hardware company like Visus bring compatibility with the most extensive game library possible. And, on top of that, Visus is taking innovation into its own hands using proprietary and patent pending Wi-Fi enabled game streaming technology as well as its own wireless head-tracking circuitry.

StarVR also poses a threat to VR giants, at least in terms of pushing the limits of its tech. Starbreeze Studios, the developer known mostly for its Payday game series in addition to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, is at the helm of the project, promising 5,120 x 1,440 resolution and a 210-degree field of view.

This compares favorably to the Oculus Rift, which promises 2,160 x 1,200 resolution over two OLED displays and a 100-degree field of view.

starvr

With specs like this, it’s safe to assume StarVR wouldn’t adhere to the affordability column, as achieving its native resolution at a consistently high frame-rate would test the limits of even the best graphics cards. Plus, we don’t know what the headset itself is going to cost. And as TechSpot reported during E3, it’s far too bulky to leave strapped to your head for hours on end, a clearcut dilemma for a device designed for exactly that.

Availability

With HTC’s Re Vive, powered by Steam VR, set to release in November and Oculus Rift coming early next year, many of us are eager to get are hands on a VR headset right now. So why wait? Both Freefly and Homido are currently available for purchase.

Homido supports smartphones 5 inches or less, sporting a handful of apps and videos. Meanwhile, Freefly can uphold nearly any phone with a screen size between 4.7 and 6.1 inches. Plus, it’s compatible with over 200 apps on Android and iOS, thanks to the free Google Cardboard app. Take your pick!

Where do we go from here?

With new VR technologies constantly on the rise, we now find ourselves at an exciting time for experimental new hardware. Obviously, for smaller companies to appease the masses as a prominent force in the market rather than an alternative, they need to create a distinction in both their products and marketing strategies.

Fortunately, several of these are off to a great start already. Now it’s high time to convince consumers why they’re better off buying a VR headset from a relatively unknown brand as opposed to, say, Facebook and Valve.

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