Always on the doorstep of adoption, never quite there.
That’s pretty much described the consumer virtual reality and augmented reality landscape over the last half-decade. But consumer mixed reality is now officially worth a look thanks to increasing competition and new headsets from a variety of legacy and first-time players, which may soon include Apple in 2022. Mark Zuckerberg’s big bet on the metaverse will likely keep attention in this direction for a long time to come. As the business case for AR/VR technologies outpaces consumer adoption, pressure from the enterprise, which widely employs consumer mixed reality hardware, has helped move the technology in the right direction across the board.
While there are purpose-built machines for the enterprise, the lines are increasingly blurred between consumer and commercial mixed reality. To compile this list, we took a broad survey of available devices and spoke to independent industry experts not affiliated with the brands listed. Nothing beats the hands-on trial, and we also had fun putting these headsets through their paces.
What follows are our picks for the best VR and AR headsets available.
All-in-one VR experience
From the company that pioneered wireless VR, Oculus Quest 2 is an evolution of the popular Quest headset. With Quest 2, Oculus makes a multi-generational leap in processing power with the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 Platform offering higher AI capability and 6GB of RAM. The new display features 1832 x 1920 pixels per eye — the company’s highest resolution display yet. With 50% more pixels than the original Quest, everything from multiplayer games and productivity apps to 360-degree videos look better than ever.
There have long been rumors of a Quest 3 in the works, but Zuck put those to bed for the time being at Facebook Connect in late 2021. The next Oculus headset is being dubbed Project Cambria, and not much is known about it other than that it’s not a direct successor to the Quest 2. For now, that means the current model is still the most relevant buy in the Oculus lineup. With excellent hand tracking via very comfortable controls, the Quest 2 is easy to set up and use. Users draw their own perimeter area, like a private arena for excellent gameplay. And games are the Quest’s specialty. Oculus has a great app store, and 50% more pixels than the previous version, the Quest 2 renders phenomenal virtual worlds for exquisite gameplay. You’ll want the 256GB version, which retails for $399.
High-res with room tracking
If you want to level up your experience to 2880 x 1700 combined Pixel resolution, and if you want full-room playability with best-in-class room tracking, the Vive Cosmos is worth a look. It’s an upgrade to the original Cosmos, and because the system is designed with interoperability in mind, you can create your own VR gaming experience with other HTC components.
All of that, of course, comes at a price, although that price has come down a fair bit in the last year and you can currently nab a unit for about $899. You’ll get best-in-class tracking (a complaint with the entry-level version) and a VR unit that’s primed to make the most of PC-based gaming. We also noticed the sound quality of this unit is a step above the competition, which helps create a truly immersive playing experience.
VR for PS4 fans
So much of VR is geared toward gamers, it makes sense that the experience should integrate into your favorite gaming console. At the risk of starting a war, PS4 and PS5 currently reign supreme in the console-based gaming world, and if you have either unit and think a VR spin on gaming could be cool, this one is for you.
Even though it’s now a few years old, Sony’s VR headset capably upgrades the PlayStation experience with capable VR gaming and a great cinema experience. It’s also a cheap option these days, with units available from retailers like Amazon for less than $250.
Education and work
Designed for the enterprise, the Vuzix Blade Upgraded headset is top of the line and intended for remote access to multimedia content on the job site, whether that’s distributed field techs or workers on the line. With greater connectivity and the ability to project instructional content, schematics, and live help, workers using the Vuzix Blade Upgraded are empowered to finish the job on a single service call and do it right the first time, a massive time and money saver.
The headset also has great promise for collaboration in more traditional work environments and in fact were designed with remote collaboration in mind—a hallmark of the new era of work, education, and play. The Blade Upgraded glasses benefit from the same features as the regular Blade and now include an auto-focus 8-megapixel camera, built-in stereo speakers, and advanced Vuzix voice control. They render objects in the field of view in full color, and they can be used as FPV glasses for drone users, both commercial and consumer. It’s a durable piece of kit for the connected worker.
Which VR headset is right for you?
The biggest consideration is the use-case. Will you be using a headset for gaming only for interactive uses like design or FPV? Do you already own a powerful PC and need a headset that interfaces seamlessly?
The gulf between commercial and consumer mixed reality has always been small, with plenty of enterprises utilizing Oculus headsets and savvy consumers looking into enterprise headsets for powerful collaboration potential. The reality is it’s still very much the Wild West for a technology class that’s been puffed up by years of hype but is still searching for a knockout case for adoption. The use cases for mixed reality remain niche: Gamers game, designers design, and athletes track their activity. Within each pool of utilizations, there are a small number of serviceable, if quirky headsets, meaning budget tends to be the deciding factor after use case. One thing we’ve noticed is that the technology hasn’t advanced as much in the past few years as it might have, so don’t shy away from older tech, which is cheaper and represents a great value in what’s still the first blush of our mixed reality future.
Are there other VR headsets to consider?
Most of the headsets on this list cater to VR and target gamers. But what about the growing world of action-sports AR headsets, a newer category of wearable designed to help athletes and weekend warriors stay fit, push their limits, and track their progress.
Cycling is a prime example, and if you’re a cyclist we highly recommend checking out the Raptor, a combination of a cycling computer and an AR system. The display projects an unobtrusive AR layer of information out in front of the cyclist’s eyes, displaying information on performance, body posture, and accomplishments in a way that enables eyes to stay on the road. It’s the perfect tool for the serious or advanced hobbyist cycler with a tech bent, the gadget-based antidote to Peloton.
Do VR headsets need a PC?
While many VR headsets do require a capable desktop or laptop computer, there are a few standalone options like the Oculus Quest and HTC Vive Focus. A standalone headset does have more limited motion parameters, usually only allowing for up/down, left/right, and forward/back movement of your head. The trade-off is that they have on-board memory storage for games and programs, freeing you from being tied to a PC just to pop into Minecraft or VRChat for an hour or so.
Are there free VR games?
Yes! While many of the titles you’ll find on Steam or the Epic Store will cost you at least a little money, there are tons of free software options out there like Spider-Man: Far From Home VR or the demo for the popular rhythm game, Beat Saber. Just make sure that the game you want to download is compatible with your particular headset.
Is it worth buying a VR headset?
That is a complicated question to answer. Many PC-reliant and standalone VR headsets are on the expensive side, making widespread adoption of the tech sort of difficult; not to mention the cost of building or buying a pre-built PC capable of virtual reality. They also require lots of space to safely operate, since you’re basically walking around blind in a room full of things to trip over, and many folks don’t have whole rooms they can dedicate solely to VR gaming. If you’re a serious gamer who wants to keep up with the latest tech, it’s worth investing in at least a mid-tier headset like the Oculus Quest to cut your teeth on before diving into the more high-end options. But if you don’t think you’d use the headset for more than the occasional Beat Saber session, you’re better off borrowing from a friend.