Real VR has finally made it home – at least for people who have the money to afford a system. Augmented reality isn't too far behind either and has made several significant steps forward in 2016.
It's tough to say yet whether AR headsets will make it mainstream, but the advent of VR has surely paved a way. That's not to say VR is perfect just yet – the headsets could use some more tinkering in terms of comfort, more rounded experiences, and of course the big one: freedom from wires. However we're confident that these developments aren't too far off.
Essential reading: The best VR headsets
Here's our year in review of VR and AR in chronological order. We can't wait to see what 2017 will bring.
This beast of a machine gave us jaw-droppingly amazing experiences when it arrived in April. HTC Vive let us walk around in VR and, though tethered to an expensive PC rig, the headset proved that virtual reality could be so much more than a sitting experience. From Google's Tilt Brush to high intensity shooter Raw Data, we've truly loved using the Vive this year. Heck, it even won the Wareable Award for best headset of 2016 for delivering a complete VR package with its controllers, room-scale and high quality experiences.
But the caveats remain – Vive is expensive and not exactly the most living-room-friendly device. The SteamVR library could also use a few more polished games with varying gameplay and experiences that last a little longer.
Like the Vive, Oculus Rift has also been blowing minds this year. On arrival, Oculus was plagued with shipping delays (as was Vive, but Rift headsets arrived much later for some people). Was it worth the wait? Somewhat. We liked the Oculus Rift. And that was it – a solid, albeit vanilla, VR experience. The lack of room-scale and controllers for each hand were sorely missed. That's been resolved with the Oculus Touch controllers which we'll get into shortly – they arrived about eight months later than the headset. While it meant spending extra money, they were certainly worth the wait.
Now, Microsoft HoloLens didn't actually launch this year. However, the company did set some plans in motion for its AR/MR headset by finally selling HoloLens developer kits. For a very affordable $3,000 per headset (sarcasm), early adopters can try and create new apps and experiences plus provide Microsoft with feedback. So it's technically still not ready for consumers but we consider it a big step in the right direction. After all, it's better than Microsoft canning it altogether like it did with the Microsoft Band 2…
Samsung Gear VR
While there are tons of mobile VR headsets now out and on the way, it's safe to say that the Samsung Gear VR was the first to really show off what mobile VR could do. That's probably why the 2016 version had so many impressive improvements. Samsung and Oculus took our complaints to heart and got rid of the fogging up issue, made it more comfy and of course, continued to add VR experiences.
Oculus Santa Cruz
Learning about the Oculus Santa Cruz standalone prototype was a major surprise of 2016. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during the reveal that high-end, untethered VR is the middle ground we need to bridge the gap between mobile VR and tethered PC VR. Trying Santa Cruz out had us seeing visions of what a future of untethered VR will look like. Even with a short demo, the immersion was undeniably better than the likes of Rift, Vive and Gear VR. We probably won't be able to buy it next year – the headset we tried was held together with duct tape – but at least we now know a standalone Oculus is on the way.
With all the talk of PC VR, don't think we've forgotten console virtual reality. Sony's PlayStation VR is much more affordable than its high-end counterparts, though it comes with a few sacrifices. You won't get room-scale, meaning walking around is pretty much out of the question. The graphics quality isn't on the same level as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive either and we've been more prone to motion sickness on PS VR than the other devices. However, we remained impressed by Sony's offering – it's compatible with PS4 peripherals you may already have, the games library is good and it's mega easy to set up – so we aren't complaining too much.
The big VR reviews of the year
Microsoft VR platform
During Microsoft's Surface event, we were expecting to hear more about the HoloLens. Instead, we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by news that Microsoft is working on "powerful and affordable VR". More specifically, the company will be partnering up with other brands to release a $299 headset that's going to work with the upcoming Windows 10 Creator's Edition software update. Aside from who's making the headset – HP, Dell, Lenovo, Asus and Acer – and the price, we know very little. Here's hoping next year will reveal more secrets.
We've expressed our fondness for Gear VR but this year we also fell in love with Google Daydream View. Where Samsung's headset is all plastics and metals, Google's own Daydream headset is soft, cushy and kind of cute – major props to the designers. The VR headset fits like, well, a dream and works really well too. Unfortunately, it's pickier than its sibling Google Cardboard and will only work with the Google Pixel phone or other Android Daydream-ready handsets. That rules out iPhone users too, which is a bit of a bummer.
We've reached the final part of Oculus' VR puzzle: the Oculus Touch controllers. Oh, and the little addition of an extra sensor to allow Oculus room-scale. We had to wait until December for the hardware, but as we said before, it was worth it. The Touch controllers give you a teensy bit more functionality than Vive's controllers and you don't need as much space for the room-scale tech. The sensors are also far easier to set up and adjust due to their bases, and, last but not least, Oculus' games library is loaded with experiences that feel like you're getting your money's worth of playtime. But money could be the issue here – getting the complete Rift experience is pricey, and that's the area it may struggle with for the time being.
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