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.


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


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