How to step into virtual reality without going virtually broke

virtual reality on the cheap merge vr
Virtual reality is not cheap. Although to an extent it’s good that the VR bar has been set so high, so early, it does create a barrier. Many people who want to be part of the VR revolution just can’t afford to join in.

If you’re one of those people, don’t fret.  You don’t have to wait until second hand Vive headsets start showing up on Ebay. You might have to make a couple of sacrifices, but if you have a little money, some know how and a big desire to experience virtual reality, there are some things you can do.

Mobile is still the easiest way to enjoy VR for less

If you want to play VR games on your desktop, then we probably won’t be able to convince you of mobile VR’s strengths. But it does have its positives — and cost is among them.

For starters, if you have a Samsung Galaxy 6 or any of its derivatives, congratulations! You can get on board with consumer grade VR for just $100. Buy yourself a Samsung Gear VR, and you’re off and running. It won’t have positional tracking – though it will possibly be added later – and you will need to provide your own earphones, but the Gear VR comes closer to the desktop experience than you might then.

You’ll have access to a unique store front, a number of titles that are cross platform with the Rift CV1, and you can take it anywhere with you. That means VR experiences and games on trains, in public, or in your bed. Wherever you are, you can use VR.

Of course, not everyone has a high-end smartphone from Samsung, and not everyone can afford the contract that goes with it. Never fear. There is an alternative.

merge vr headset

Merge VR is not one of the biggest names out there, and its headset might look a little less cool while still costing the same as the Gear VR, but the handsets you can put in it are much more varied. Any 1080p Android or iOS smartphone from the past few years should work well enough, and though you won’t have access to all of the official Gear VR apps, there are some in-house Merge apps, and some cross-platform Android videos and experiences to try.

Are you handy? Build your own

As cheap as mobile is, there is a more affordable alternative — building your own. How hard could it be? If you opt for a Google Cardboard-like design, not at all. We even have a simple break down on how to build one from a cereal box. Of course, that’s on the extreme end of budget VR, and the final product is basic.

Adding features will add complexity, but it’s not impossible to build a more impressive headset. If you know what you’re doing, you can construct one for anywhere between $10 and $60, depending on your access to tools, hardware, and your technical know how.

The guys at RoadToVR have a handy guide from guest writer Austin “Ohaple,” who uses a gyroscopic mouse for head tracking, an Android or iOS smartphone for a display, and a home-built headset (his design is similar to Google Cardboard).

Though a smartphone is used as a screen, the experience is driven by a PC, which is connected to the smartphone through screen mirroring software. This tactic is all about leveraging the power of a desktop system to deliver higher-fidelity VR experiences on a budget.

Even when everything goes right, there are some limitations to the design. There’s no positional tracking, so you can’t lean in and out or raise and lower your point of view. You won’t have official support in games apart, from those which have a side by side 3D version, or third party injection drivers. And the image quality may not be great, depending on the smartphone you use for the display.

It can also make you look quite ridiculous, even more so than usual VR headsets. But no one wears a VR set to look cool, right?

Secondhand VR is still pretty awesome

While the options discussed so far have merits, the desktop VR experience is going to be, at least for the foreseeable future, the flagship. Desktops have the most powerful graphics, the most storage space, and the broadest compatibility with peripherals.

Of course, it’s also the most expensive, and expense is exactly what we’re trying to avoid with this piece. So how can desktop VR be possible without dishing out $1,500 for an Oculus ready rig?

Importantly, the DK2 requires a less powerful GPU to run titles.

For starters, we’re not going to look to Oculus’ new consumer CV1 Rift for our headset. We are instead going to go with the DK2. This second developer kit is available in large quantities on auction sites, and from early adopters in forums as people try and recoup some money to fund their own CV1 purchases.

Depending on how well kept the headset is, these can range from $250 right up to $500. If you wait, prices will come down further. They are currently inflated because Oculus stopped distribution of the old developer kits, but has not yet shipped the new consumer edition. That’s created a bubble in demand that will inflate as soon as new hardware starts to ship.

The DK2 isn’t as good as the CV1, of course, but it isn’t terrible. The display behind the lenses is a single, 5.7 inch, 1080p AMOLED panel from the Galaxy Note 3. This is a lower resolution than the CV1’s 2,160 x 1,200 pixel display, but not by much. It also operates at a 75Hz refresh rate, versus the CV1’s 90Hz. The DK2 is capable of near 360-degree positional tracking thanks to the included camera, and even requires two USB ports and an HDMI connector, versus the four USB ports that the CV1 demands.

Importantly, the DK2 requires a less powerful GPU to run titles. That’s because both its resolution and refresh rate is lower. The minimum specification for the DK2 when it was released was a GTX 600 or HD 7000 series graphics card or better. Most people who are serious about VR will already have a capable rig.

OSVR
OSVR
OSVR

Of course, new games and VR experiences are going to have their own requirements, and may well need to be set to lower fidelity settings when released in order to run on older hardware, but we’re not going to be running something that’s that slow. Indeed we’re going to try and couple this VR headset with a system that is more than capable enough of running the latest games, without breaking the bank.

If you can’t find a DK2 for a reasonable price – and as some people get impatient for the CV1 launch, that is a possibility – you might try the OSVR Hacker Development Kit, by Razer. It’s available now for $300 and has the advantages of being open source, user upgrade-able and very accessible.

It comes with a screen that’s the same resolution as the DK2, though operates at a lower frame rate with a simulated 240Hz refresh rate, rather than an actual 75Hz. It has high-quality optics and individual eye focus for personalizing the experience. Our own Brad Bourque thought it was even better than the Rift CV1, in some cases, due to its excellent optics and low price.

The downside to the OSVR is that it doesn’t have Oculus’ extensive software support, so it may not be as intuitive to use, or have support for as many titles as the Rift. On the other hand, its open-source nature means you may be able to enjoy experiences not available on other platforms — if you’re willing to install user mods and spend time customizing the experience.

Next page: Building your PC and finding peripherals

Meet the power behind the throne

Building a PC for virtual reality is not cheap as it’s very much a premium, early adopter experience, even now several years on from the first headsets becoming available. But since we aren’t aiming to drive the Oculus CV1, we can look a little lower on the spectrum of PC hardware, in order to save ourselves some money.

The graphics card of a VR system is of great importance, but it doesn’t need to be a money sink.

It may be that you only need to update one or two components, in which case you can cherry pick the parts in question from the following guide, but this will assume that you don’t have a PC to speak of whatsoever, in which case we’re going to need to be very budget conscious.

Although the GPU will do more of the heavy lifting when it comes to our VR build, the CPU is the heart of any system, so we’ll start there. Since we won’t be pushing for the extremes of what’s required by the Oculus Rift CV1, we’re going to recommend an Intel Core i3-6100. It has a strong base frequency, and thanks to Hyper-Threading can offer four processing threads, though it only has two physical cores.

The i3-6100 can be found for around $130 at the time of writing. Combine that with an affordable motherboard like the Gigabyte GA-H110M-A and an 8GB (4×2) kit of cheap DDR4, and you have the core of your build covered for just $200.

Nvidia GTX 960 video card fans
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

The graphics card of a VR system is of great importance, but it doesn’t need to be a money sink. If a GTX 970 can run consumer grade VR, then we should be able to get away with a GTX 960 or a R9 380x easily. Both of those cards can be found for under $200 in the right location, which leaves us with plenty to spend on the rest of the system if needed.

If you do opt for the Nvidia GPU, we can almost guarantee it will have lower power requirements, so you can probably get away with a 500 watt power supply, though we won’t skimp on the brand as that puts the rest of your components at risk. How about a Corsair CX500 for around $50?

To finish up our build we’ll throw in a generic 128GB SSD for $45 and a cheap and nasty mATX chassis of your choosing, budget around $30 – because how your PC looks is pretty unimportant when you have an HMD strapped to your head.

So there we have it. A pretty capable VR gaming PC for just over $500.

CPU Intel Core i3 6100 $130
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-H110M-A $50
RAM G.Skill Ripjaws V 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR4 $45
Graphics Card MSI GeForce GTX 960 2GB $180
Storage SanDisk SSD Plus 120GB $40
Power Supply Corsair CX500 500w Gold PSU $50
Chassis Antec VSK4000E $30
Total $525

The Peripherals

Although virtual reality’s main attraction is its ability to visually put you into a world, there are many other aspects of it that can be utilized to help improve presence. Audio is something that Oculus has put a lot of time and effort to get right, because bi-naural, 3D audio that lets you accurately place where a sound is coming from helps make you feel part of the scene; that’s why the CV1 comes with its own set of built-in, surround-sound headphones.

Of course any DK2 based VR solution isn’t going to have that, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get yourself some reasonable audio of your own without breaking the bank. You can pick up the Logitech G430 with Circumaural surround for around $50. It has virtual surround sound, rather than multiple drivers for real surround, but it does the job in most situations.

What about controller input? The HTC Vive will ship with hand tracking right out of the box, and Oculus’ Touch controllers will arrive later in 2016. How can we experience something similar on our VR budget build?

Although exciting for its time, the Hydra is antiquated and hard to find without spending a lot.

A wired, second hand Razer Hydra will give you some functionality in certain supported experiences, but it’s rarely cheap. A Leap Motion would be a better bet at around $100, with its mount to attach to a headset, but it can only track your hands near your head.

The best bet for controller input for our economical VR build is an Xbox controller. The wireless Xbox One gamepad comes with the Oculus CV1 anyway, so we know it will be supported by lots of games and experiences, but you can save money by choosing Xbox 360 controller.

You can pick one of those up for just over $30 new on Amazon, and used controllers are a dime a dozen at your local second-hand shop.

The final PC build cost

So let’s tot everything up, shall we?

  • Oculus Rift DK2 headset or OSVR – $300
  • Basic PC with Rift DK2 specifications: $525
  • Controllers: $80

That’s an Oculus Rift headset (albeit a DK2) and an ‘Oculus Ready’ system for just over $900. And that’s only if you’re starting from scratch. If you have a relatively capable PC already, or at least have components you can Frankenstein together to create your VR system, the all-in-cost could dip under $400.

And that’s the flagship experience. If you’re willing to go the mobile route instead, you can enjoy a premium, consumer grade experience with your Samsung handset and a GearVR, or go for something a little more mid-range and pop your smartphone in a Merge. Both options are extremely affordable, and you can build your own headset for even less.

Everyone will be part of the VR revolution soon enough, but at least now if you want to get on the hype train before it picks up speed, you know how without getting your wallet emptied in the process.

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