A beginner's guide to Virtual Reality

Big name players from a variety of industries are all racing towards a VR goal, all of them using slightly different approaches. From price, to specs, to space available in your home or office, to equipment you already own, there are a number of factors that help you decide which device is best for you.

This isn't an exhaustive list of virtual reality devices or a spec showdown between VR powerhouses. This is a guide to the big questions you'll have to ask yourself before you get your first VR device.

Mobile or PC Powered

The first big decision anyone has to make when it comes to VR is what type of device they're going to get. PC powered VR devices are powerful, generally well built, and often high-end devices that can give you the ultimate VR experience. Their power and capabilities utilize the PC powering them and if you have the funds and the proper setup can give you a holodeck like experience.

A downside of PC powered devices is that they're often tethered to a PC and that hardware has to be fairly powerful to run high end VR, or even run the device at all. But that restriction has become slightly less of an issue recently. While PC-powered VR headsets have to be connected to a PC, that connection doesn't have to be wired. TP-Cast has a wireless adapter for the HTC Vive and HTC showed off their own wireless adapter at CES 2018. Additionally, you can run high end VR off of some laptops and even a PC that fits in a backpack. These computers aren't cheap but they mean that you have options that provide more mobility than VR used to have.

If you're starting completely from scratch you'd have to buy both a VR device which range from a few hundred dollars to around $600 plus an entire gaming rig which can range from relatively affordable to absurdly expensive depending on what you're looking for.

Mobile VR offers the distinct advantage of being portable, meaning that you can easily take it out of your home. You can pop on a Gear VR or Daydream headset and use it anywhere you want. You can easily bring it to a friend or family member's house or into your office. They work by just attaching your phone and depending on the VR device have a relatively wide range of compatibility with phones. You have to have a fairly new and high end smartphone to use Google's Daydream but you have multiple options that fit the bill. Samsung's Gear VR requires a Samsung device but you don't have to have the latest flagship to make it work.

The downside of these phone powered devices is that they don't stack up to PC powered VR in terms of power. And while mobile powered headsets are built well, they aren't as beefy as the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. Additionally, if you don't have a phone that can run VR you'll have to buy one. This is less of a hurdle for many people because phone carriers make it easier to get high end devices and if you go the buying outright route most people are used to buying new phones every couple of years.

If you're in the market for a new phone and are interested in checking out VR, it's worth grabbing a handset that can handle virtual reality. The bulk of the expenses related to mobile-powered VR are the phone itself.

How much space you have available

Before you get any device you need to look at the space you'll be using it in. A device can go to waste if it's not in an environment to thrive.

There are two approaches to immersive VR, devices that require sensors mounted in the room and devices that have all required sensors built into the device.The two main options for setups requiring mounted sensors are the HTC Vive and an Oculus Rift- the Oculus Rift comes with two sensors but a full room setup requires an additional censor to be purchased.

If you are mainly using VR at your desk you don't need the full room setup.

Devices that have all of their sensors built in are generally powered by Windows Mixed Reality. These headsets scan the room you're in and can incorporate your surroundings in VR and AR.

The full holodeck-like experience is great but apart from any pricing or hardware restrictions, you are restricted by the area you'll be experiencing virtual reality. If you plan to stay mainly at your desk, you might lean towards one headset over another.

If you are mainly using VR at your desk you don't need the full room setup. The Oculus Rift is well suited for desk based or seated virtual reality and also comes with a lower price tag. The HTC Vive can be used at a desk as well but you'll have to decide if it's worth the price jump to get a device that you wouldn't be using to its full potential. Windows Mixed Reality headsets can also be used while seated or while utilizing an entire room.

Equipement you already own and what you're willing to spend

VR isn't the cheapest field to jump into. Devices to power VR aren't usually cheap, the VR devices themselves have a price tag, and the software you run on them can add to the price. It's worth it of course if you can afford it. And how much you can afford is one of the biggest dictators of what device you should look to purchase.

If you're a PC gamer and just want to add VR to your gaming setup you're used to spending money on hardware and can get into VR for a price you'll be able to swallow since you're already in the world of PC gaming. Similarly if you have a PlayStation 4 or PlayStation 4 Pro and want to get into VR you can look at PlayStation VR. But if you're just a casual user who wants to jump in you can easily, and affordably, jump into VR with a high end smartphone.

The entry level price for VR is the most affordable it's ever been. Google's Daydream can be purchased for only $69. Samsung's Gear VR is slightly higher but is still only $97.47 with a controller. But these device's low price doesn't mean that much if you need to spend $600 or more on a phone to run it.

PlayStation VR is closer to PC powered VR pricing at around $357 but if you already have a PlayStation 4 that isn't as much of an investment.

Equipment you already own affects your budget the most on the PC powered side of things. The Oculus Rift is available with touch controllers for $399 and even if you want to add more sensors they're $79 each. The HTC Vive recently had its price dropped to an alluring $599 and with that you get an extensive setup. Windows Mixed Reality devices vary more in pricing, ranging from $399 to $499. None of these are a small investment but they're something many could afford. But if you have to tack on a full gaming PC to that purchased you'll be looking at a total that could be measured in thousands rather than hundreds depending on the specs you want.

Summing up your decision

VR is an expanding industry that many are going to want to be a part of. But deciding what type of device you get isn't cut and dry. But after weighing your financing, space available, equipment you already own, and looking at how you'll be using your device you can cut down your choices to a few options.

Once you've decided the type of device you want, check out some of our head to heads to pick a specific device.

Sean Endicott
News Writer and apps editor

Sean Endicott brings nearly a decade of experience covering Microsoft and Windows news to Windows Central. He joined our team in 2017 as an app reviewer and now heads up our day-to-day news coverage. If you have a news tip or an app to review, hit him up at sean.endicott@futurenet.com.