Back in the day, I’d often get asked whether PlayStation or Xbox was best. Helpless efforts to argue "well, actually, PC is..." aside, I’d defuse their concerns about which had the superior graphics by naming which games you would or wouldn’t get on each. It’s not going to be any different for VR.
But for now, when numbers are really all we have, I'm going to list some numbers at you below. It's too early to say for sure which headset you should buy if you're planning on buying one at all, but this should help you to determine whether one virtual reality headset or the other might have better image quality or motion tracking.
Of course, if these things take off in mainstream gaming – and there’s a huge question mark over even that – there remains a strong chance that the industry will slowly favour one option over the other, for many and complicated development and funding reasons. If that happens, either one or more of the major headsets withers and dies, or everything homogenises in order to ensure that any given headset works on any given game. My point being, you simply can’t guarantee you’re buying the ‘best’ VR hardware simply by looking at the specs.
It’s going to come down to the experience, not simply the resolution or how many sensors there are. And the experience is a confluence of hardware and software; even if one headset does have superior hardware, that doesn’t guarantee that its exclusive games or applications are making the best use of it, or of the wider concept.
There are other factors to consider, too. The Valve/HTC Vive partnership could be argued to have more appeal, because it comes from an incredibly experienced games company and it’s doing more with full-body tracking, but on the other hand Oculus has the fully-armed and operational Facebook battlestation behind it, and we don’t yet know to what extent that will come to bear.
That very long proviso aside, let’s talk numbers. Or, at least, the numbers that we know – given neither of the big headsets are available yet, there’s still a chance any and everything could change.
Resolution: 2160×1200, or 1080×1200 per eye, at 90Hz
Sound: Integrated headphones
Motion detection: 6 degree of freedom rotational and positional tracking via the Oculus ‘Constellation’ system. This is a desk-mounted sensor array which tracks the movement of blinking LEDs on the main headset, with scope to also track additional peripherals fitted with similar LEDs. At launch, the Rift hardware can only track head movements.
Controller: Bundled Xbox One gamepad and wireless adaptor at launch; Oculus touch wireless motion controllers to follow later, as an additional purchase (price TBC).
Bundled non-games software: Oculus Home, a hub/store/dashboard seen when not running a specific application. Oculus Cinema, a networked virtual movie theatre which can display both conventional and VR movies; 5 VR shorts are planned for launch.
Bundled games: Multiplayer space dogfighter Eve: Valykrie; platformer Lucky's Tale
Number of games projected to be available at or near launch: 67
Developer support: There's a strong partnership with CCP for EVE Valkyrie, while big-name devs such as Square-Enix, Insomniac and Harmonix are making stuff for it. Perhaps more importantly, there's Oculus Studios, set up specifically to help bring about Rift games. Additionally, the Rift Software Development Kit can integrate with the Unity, Unreal and CryEngine editors, theoretically allowing straightforward VR conversions.
Key strengths (IMHO): The Facebook backing; out before Vive; was providing hardware to devs long before Vive; wider potential for non-gaming applications; the publicly-seen hardware so far is lighter and less cumbersome than the Vive's.
Key weaknesses (IMHO): Lack of Touch controllers at launch - a conventional gamepad when you can't see it presents a steep learning curve; only tracks head movement; higher-than-hoped price; uncertainty around retail distribution; apparent lack of games experience compared to Valve.
Killer app (IMHO): Many have presumed some VR social tool will be the Rift's backbone, given the Facebook involvement (some former Linden Labs/Second Life folk are already working on something in that vein), but I think the cinema stuff is what to watch. Not necessarily the VR-specific movies, but rather just truly big-screen movies without the practical issues of a big telly, and the potential to share the experience with mates without having to go round their houses. It also opens the door to Facebook doing their own Netflix, which I'm sure is on their minds.
Launch date: starting March for the earliest pre-orderers; pre-ordering now necessitates waiting until July.
Price: $599 before tax and shipping; exact costs vary per territory and depending on exchange rate. UK total price is around £530.
Resolution: 2160×1200, or 1080×1200 per eye, at 90Hz
Integrated headphones promised but unseen as yet
Motion detection: 70 sensors including a MEMS gyroscope, accelerometer and laser positioning. Two 'Lighthouse' base stations track full-body movement around a 15' x 15' space. Front-facing camera on the headset can display a live feed of the real world, and automatically warn if the user is about to collide with an obstacle.
Controller: Two tracking wands, with buttons and touchpads in addition to motion detection.
Bundled non-games software: TBC, but Google's VR art tool Tilt Brush seems likely.
Bundled games: TBC, but Valve's own Portal demo seem likely.
Number of games projected to be available at or near launch: At least 10 known so far; more are likely to be revealed when pre-orders open in late February. (Speaking anecdotally, I know that a lot of Vive-friendly games are in development, but I don't know how many will arrive soon after the hardware does).
Developer support: Valve has been working with a number of studios for quite some time, and providing free hardware to quite a few devs. They're also providing their own 'OpenVR' SDK, which they claim can be used for all VR headsets - in theory, at least. (By contrast, with Oculus there's less far less certainty that a game made for it will play nice with other headsets). Unreal and Unity already support it on the development side, while the now-mature Elite Dangerous (and its Horizon expansion) will have Vive support from day one.
Key strengths (IMHO): It can track you walking around a room rather than simply movements in front of your desk; Valve are a leading games company, with all the experience and contacts that entails; if the price can meet or undercut the Rift's the Vive will be seen as the better value proposition; the partnership with HTC brings significant hardware manufacture and distribution experience to the table; in my limited personal experience, what the Vive's doing feels like a bigger step
Key weaknesses (IMHO): Oculus has been around longer and will launch first; lingering concerns about build quality and comfort in the wake of the disappointing Steam Controller, although technically HTC are responsible for that this time out; so far it's bulkier and with more wires than the Rift (though final hardware is yet to be seen); potential to be far more costly as more components are involved; requirement for a large amount of free space in the home if you want to use the base stations.
Killer app (IMHO): I think it's Tilt Brush. In terms of VR breaking out to a wider audience, we shouldn't be thinking 'VR COD' or 'VR Fallout' so much as The Next Minecraft. As a boundless, intuitive creativity tool for all ages which can conjure wonder with a minimum of effort, Tilt Brush has got enormous potential. For the Vive particularly, it's the perfect storm of awe-inspiring 3D virtual reality and highly responsive motion controls.
Launch date: TBC, but pre-orders open on February 29th. Speculation puts the release in Springtime.
Price: We'll find out on February 29th.
These are the main contenders on PC right now, and certainly the most imminent. Of course, there are quite a few other VR projects in development - particularly Starbreeze's Project StarVR, Sony's PlayStation VR / Morpheus, but also a number of cheaper, less impressive headsets. Any of them could be an upset for either or both of these kings apparent. The dream outcome for us is that an open standard - whether it's Valve's own OpenVR, the independent Open Source Virtual Reality Project or something else entirely - emerges so that it becomes at least semi-academic which headset you have.
The nightmare scenario is big games declaring exclusive support for just one platform, and either we miss out on good things or wind up with empty bank accounts and a cupboard crammed full of dusty hardware. With big guns such as Google, Apple and Microsoft (though they do have Hololens) yet to step into the VR ring but likely to if it takes off, the situation could well get worse before it gets better. Welcome to the future of entertainment.