11 Things We Learned By Trying Every Virtual Reality Headset Out There

Aug 06, 2015

In the August 17 cover story of TIME, we take a deep look at the mainstreaming of virtual reality, the long-promised technology that is now becoming widely available to consumers. Headsets from Facebook's Oculus, Valve, Sony, Microsoft, Google and many others will start going on sale this year, and competition will increase dramatically through 2016. Throughout this year, we set out to try every major in-development headset out there. These devices promise to change not only entertainment, but education, health, and work. Here's some of what we learned:

1. Palmer Luckey, the creator of the Oculus Rift, is not your typical nerd...

He’s cheery and talks in normal sentences that are easy to understand. He was homeschooled, and though he did drop out of college, it was California State University, Long Beach, where he was majoring not in computer science but in journalism. He prefers shorts, and his feet are black because he doesn’t like wearing shoes, even outdoors. He doesn’t look like a guy who played Dungeons & Dragons so much as a character in Dungeons & Dragons. He’s a nerd from a different century, working on the problems of a different century.

2. ...and he kicked off this revolution by tinkering in his garage.

As an 18-year-old who took apart smartphones and fixed them for cash, Luckey figured out that the solutions to the problems virtual-reality engineers weren’t able to solve were right inside his phone. Now 22, he sold his company, Oculus VR, to Facebook last year for $2.3 billion, allowing it to grow to more than 350 employees in offices in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Dallas and Austin as well as in South Korea and Japan. That’s because, as fantastical as Luckey’s dreams were, Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the tech industry had a much bigger hope for the sensory-­immersion goggles Luckey used to carry around in a yellow bucket in order to hold loose wires. They had seen the Internet get disrupted by mobile and were wary of being blindsided by the next platform for accessing ­information—which they think might just have been hiding in Luckey’s yellow bucket. (Here’s how Mark Zuckerberg explains VR.)

3. Silicon Valley is pouring money into the concept like crazy.

Venture capitalist Mike Rothenberg, who runs a VR accelerator, says his firm has already secured enough money to invest in a second round of virtual-reality companies this fall. “It’s hard for people to write checks for virtual reality until they try it. Then, not that hard,” he says. He likens this opportunity to the Internet in 1995. “No one calls a company an ‘Internet company’ anymore. In 10 years, everyone will have VR as part of their company.”

Meet Virtual Reality’s Most Important Pioneers

Palmer Lucky, Founder of Oculus, wearing a set of Oculus goggles at the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. on June 23, 2015.Gregg Segal for TIME
Oculus game view
Alex Kipman holdsa Microsoft HoloLens at the microsoft hq in redmond, Wa on june 25, 2015.
Microsoft-HoloLens-MixedWorld-RGB.JPG
Ken Birdwell, an engineer from valve demonstrates the Vive virtual reality headset at the valve hq in Seattle, WA on June 25, 2015.
Alex Schwartz from Owlchemy Labs, a juggler in real life, juggling tomatoes in their 'Job Simulator' game for the Vive.
Clay Bavor wears a Google Cardboard headset in the google woodworking shop in googles hq in mountain view, CA on june 24, 2015.
Palmer Lucky, Founder of Oculus, wearing a set of Oculus goggles at the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. on J
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Gregg Segal for TIME
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4. But Luckey doesn’t feel pressure to bring out the Rift by Christmas, even though others will have come out by then.

“If the iPhone were introduced in any quarter, it would have been a hit. I doubt they were saying, ‘What’s important for the iPhone? We have to hit Christmas,’” says Luckey about letting his ­competition beat him to market.

5. Google already has a low-tech version, dubbed Cardboard (because that's what it's made of), on the market.

Through a program called Expeditions, Google has already sent 100 classrooms a field trip in a box; teachers use Cardboards to lead kids through natural, architectural and Martian wonders. The company worked with partners like the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History to create 3-D images not unlike those in the plastic viewfinders that were popular in the 1970s. This comparison isn’t lost on Google, which has a deal with Mattel to put out a version of Google Cardboard in a View-Master.

6. Valve, the gaming company that will be first of the high-end manufactures to market with its Vive headset this year, is full of true believers who can’t wait for you to get your hands on VR.

The Vive is different because it lets you walk around in a virtual environment, rather than staying seated in your chair. The headset alerts you when you’re near a wall, but it requires you to have a 16-by-12-ft. (5 by 4 m) empty room in your house. Jeep Barnett, who has worked on the project from the beginning, isn’t worried. “Sell your dining-room table and eat over your sink,” he says. “If you have a pool table, get rid of that. Get a Murphy bed. People are going to find a space. You have a space for your car because you have to have the superpower of getting downtown in 20 minutes.”

7. Sony, which also has a headset coming out for the Playstation 4, says the hardware is becoming less important than the software.

Richard Marks, a senior researcher at Sony, says that in the past few months it has gotten the hardware far enough along that the software will now matter more. Already, he says, what game designers call “talent amplification” is more impressive than he imagined. “I can point at something and have the force and levitate it, and it really feels like I’m doing it. When you play a game, you say, ‘I died.’ But in virtual reality, man, it’s even more powerful.” I try a few more games before I’m ushered out so they can clear the room for a VIP. As I walk out, Steven ­Spielberg walks in.

8. Some of the coolest applications have nothing to do with gaming.

In the most impressive virtual-­reality experience I have, I use a program called Tilt Brush (since purchased by Google, which has a bunch of high-end virtual-reality projects it’s keeping quiet) to paint in three dimensions. Walking around dripping neon, I paint in the sky in a way that makes me never need to try LSD.

9. Microsoft is trying to leapfrog everybody else with its own Hololens, which is technically augmented reality since it projects holograms onto the real world.

Alex Kipman is in charge of the Hololens, having overseen Microsoft Kinect, the Xbox add-on that allowed people to control what happens onscreen by waving their hands and using their voices, like in Minority Report. When the first version of Kinect was released five years ago, it was the coolest thing Micro­soft had ever made. Kipman is also cool. He’s got a Brazilian accent and dresses like a man who takes Burning Man seriously: shiny gray pants; a long jacket with embroidery; blunt, shoulder-length hair. “If I told people at Microsoft I wanted to make virtual reality, they would have nodded their head yes,” he says. But Kipman wants to save us from spending yet more time on our computers instead of with one another. “Virtual reality is not embracing that which makes us human. Kinect was about ­embracing what’s in all of us. Humans exist in the real world. Holograms say, ‘Hey, technology has become sophisticated enough today that we’re ready to go beyond being stuck behind pixels all day long.’” Holograms, he believes, will reverse our isolation and inactivity.

See The Incredibly Goofy Evolution of Virtual Reality Headsets

Andrew Mishkin wearing a 3-D virtual display helmet that is connected to a six-wheeled roving vehicle. The rover was meant to explore the surface of Mars and send back information.
1988 Andrew Mishkin wearing a 3-D virtual display helmet that is connected to a six-wheeled roving vehicle. The rover was meant to explore the surface of Mars and send back information.Roger Ressmeyer—Corbis
Andrew Mishkin wearing a 3-D virtual display helmet that is connected to a six-wheeled roving vehicle. The rover was meant to explore the surface of Mars and send back information.
"Reality +" at the Virtual Reality Systems 93 show was described as a next generation, multi-player virtual reality entertainment system that gave a high sense of movement in a computer-generated world revealed in a head-mounted display.
The 3-player Budweiser virtual reality mask at the Food Marketing Institute's International Supermarket Industry Convention and Educational Expostion in Chicago.
A Virtual Reality contraption at the Sci Fi Channel booth at The National Cable Television Association annual convention, in San Francisco.
Soldier training using a virtual reality-simulated 3-D shootout at an Army facility.
A visitor checking out a virtual reality head-set at the G7 Information Society Showcase taking place at the European Parliament. The head-set was linked to a camera elsewhere in the building which the visitor could control through head movements.
A researcher at Tokyo University's Intelligent Modeling Laboratory wearing 3-D glasses, extending his hands to touch carbon atoms in the microscopic world at the laboratory's virtual reality room.
Visitors enjoy virtual reality driving with 3-D goggles and driving simulators for the presentation of Japan's automaker Nissan at the Tokyo Motor Show in Tokyo.
A visitor to the " Ars Electronica in a dish installation " Humphrey II" , which allowed virtual free flight through a 3D reconstruction of the city of Linz.
A girl wore a full color head mounted display with a built-in camera as Japan's machinery maker Hitachi Zosen and Shimadzu unveiled a wearable computer, consisting of the HMD and a palm sized Windows XP PC with a pointing device at a virtual reality exhibition in Tokyo.
Lt. David Shipley of the Adams County Sheriff's Department watched an interactive video that replicated the experiences of a schizophrenic patient having auditory and visual hallucinations while attempting to refill a prescription at a pharmacy.
Valeria Petkova, right, and student Andrew Ketterer, left, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, tested the 'body-swap' illusion, a method whereby people can experience the illusion that either a mannequin or another person's body is their own body.
Raphael Pirker from Switzerland, founder of Team BlackSheep used virtual reality goggles to simulate the sensation of flight in the real world during a demonstration, flying from the perspective of a model aircraft, during a session of LeWeb'12 in Saint-Denis, near Paris.
A man seeking a job was equipped with 3D spectacles with sensors as he trained in Clermont-Ferrand, central France with avatars (background) in a virtual reality cube, at business incubator Pascalis.
Peter Kenny Jan Torpus, director of Lifeclipper project, tested the immersive augmented reality equipment in St Johanns Park in Basel, Switzerland.
Professor Karl Oldhafer, chief physician of general and visceral surgery at the Asklepios Hospital Hamburg-Barmbek, before liver surgery. Oldhafer used augmented reality, which allowed the liver to be filmed with an iPad and overlaid during the operation with virtual 3D models reconstructed from the real organ. This procedure helped locate critical structures such as tumors and vessels and was expected to improve the quality of transferring pre-operational resection plans into actual surgery.
British television presenter Rachel Riley showed a virtual-reality headset called Gear VR during a Samsung event ahead of the consumer electronic fair IFA in Berlin.
Tim Draper, Founder and Managing partner of 'Draper Fisher Jurvetson', tried out the latest in virtual reality technology the 2014 Kairos Global Summit at Ritz-Carlton Laguna Nigel in Dana Point, California.
A man played a game with the virtual reality head-mounted display 'Oculus Rift' at International Games Week in Berlin. The display transfers the eye movements to the game in real time.
Microsoft's Lorraine Bardeen demonstrates HoloLens headset during an event at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Wash. on Jan. 21, 2015.
1988 Andrew Mishkin wearing a 3-D virtual display helmet that is connected to a six-wheeled roving vehicle. The rover w
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Roger Ressmeyer—Corbis
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10. There’s debate within the community about what VR is really good for.

Jeremy Bailenson, who founded Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab in 2003, doesn’t think that his life’s work is the final platform. He thinks people will get hurt walking into walls or when a dog darts across the room. He thinks the glasses will never be comfortable to wear for long periods. And that an all-virtual world is creepy. “I’m actually a Luddite. I don’t play video games. I don’t have a Facebook account,” he says. At the Tribeca Film Festival’s symposium on virtual reality this year, he warned the audience against making entertainment for virtual reality. “Do you want to be in the trash compactor in Star Wars? No, you don’t. If Jaws felt like what you just did in my lab, no one would ever go in the ocean again.” VR, he believes, is an empathy machine and should be saved for that purpose.

11. Hollywood also has had mixed reactions.

But when one VR pioneer showed virtual reality to director James Cameron—the technology-pushing cre­ator of Avatar, Titanic and Terminator—in May 2013, Cameron stated that he had no use for it. “This has very little to do with controlling the viewers’ attention,” says a colleague. “It’s not necessarily a medium for filmmakers.”

For more on VR, read the cover story and check out:

Watch the Demo That Will Make You Want Virtual Reality Right Now

This Is When Sony’s Virtual Reality Headset Is Coming Out

Here’s When You Can Buy Oculus’s Long-Awaited Virtual Reality Headset

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