For a couple years, the Oculus Rift was wholly synonymous with virtual reality, as the still-in-development headset essentially sparked the modern VR renaissance. It's no longer the only headline option, however.
While the Rift is great and delivers some truly impressive experiences, it's not alone on the market: the HTC Vive's room-scale approach is the more immersive option of the two, and Sony is about to dive into VR itself this October with the PlayStation VR.
Not only is Sony's headset cheaper, but so is the hardware you'll need: the PlayStation 4. On top of that, Sony has tapped into the PS4's impressive arsenal of developers to deliver what could be the most impressive VR game lineup of all the platforms, at least based on what's been shown so far.
Still, given the price disparity and the tech concessions that come with it, can Sony's VR attempt really stack up against the high-end Rift? Here's what we think so far based on the specs and our time with each.
Design and comfort
The PlayStation VR has a decidedly futuristic edge to it, with a compelling blend of angles, curves, and lights that makes it look like a Daft Punk trainee helmet. Rather than strapping the main unit right onto your face, the PlayStation VR more sits atop your head, with the lenses then draped in the perfect position right in front of your eyes.
Contrast that to the Oculus Rift, which has a refined, consumer-ready look, certainly, but also just looks like a dark grey lump upon your face. That's fine, by the way! It's what's inside that counts, really – which we'll cover in a moment – and it's not like you'll care once it's on your face. Besides, you'll look silly wearing any kind of VR headset. We just think the PSVR is a bit cooler in that regard.
As for comfort, we've spent a load of time with the Oculus Rift and have found it to fit nicely on a variety of head types and adjust easily. We haven't been able to play nearly as much of the PlayStation VR since it's not yet released, but we've had the same kind of experience at trade show demos. As such, we're calling this a draw for now.
Here's where the differences become more pronounced. The Oculus Rift uses two OLED panels, giving each eye a 1080x1200 resolution look into the game worlds. On the other hand, the PlayStation VR's single panel gives you a 960x1080 view for each eye.
That's not a dramatic difference on paper, but it's more noticeable when the screen is jammed right up to your eyes. You'll see the individual pixels to some extent when using the Rift and Vive, but it's even more obvious on the PlayStation VR. It's not enough to be a deal-breaker, but if you're looking for ultimate clarity, Sony's headset is a step down.
The PlayStation VR does have one notable perk here, though: a possible maximum refresh rate of 120Hz, which means a more stable and immersive VR experience, and one less likely to churn your stomach along the way. The Rift and Vive only offer 90Hz, which is considered standard. Granted, we might not see a lot of games hit 120Hz due to the extra processing demands, but the option is there.
When it comes to console hardware, the Rift has a big advantage over the PlayStation VR as well. The Rift requires a heavy-duty gaming PC with at least a Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 graphics card, which means a total minimum investment of around US$1500 for the whole rig (excluding the Rift itself). Contrast that to the PlayStation 4, which routinely sells for less than US$400.
We saw it most noticeably on multiplatform games: playing space shooter Eve Valkyrie on the PlayStation VR a day after enjoying it on the Rift revealed less detail and sharpness, and less polish overall. Once things get moving, it's less of an issue – and if you're not comparing and contrasting headsets, then the different won't mean anything to you anyway.
But it has to be said: you're paying for less power with the PlayStation VR + PlayStation 4, and that means a graphical downgrade. Still, we've played a lot of great PlayStation VR demos that have really impressed us, so it's not like you're getting crap in return for your cash.
And there's one more thing to keep in mind: Sony is officially working on a higher-end PS4 console, widely referred to as the PlayStation 4K, which is rumoured to release alongside the PlayStation VR this autumn. If it arrives in time, it could bring the PlayStation VR experience much closer to that of the Rift – although the headset hardware difference will remain.
Winner: Oculus Rift
Right now, the Oculus Rift ships with an Xbox One gamepad, although Oculus will release its impressive Touch motion controllers later this year. The Touch remotes should put the Rift closer to the HTC Vive in capabilities, and unlock a wealth of new play experiences for VR.
Meanwhile, the PlayStation VR uses the PS4's DualShock 4 as the baseline controller for some games, but uses the PlayStation Move motion controllers for more immersive or active experiences. These are the same Move wands that debuted on the PlayStation 3, so if you've got a bundle of 'em tucked away in a box somewhere, you might be in luck.
When it comes to gamepads, the Xbox One controller and DualShock 4 are both super-refined, best-in-their class options. However, the gap in motion controller quality is more significant: the six-year-old Move remotes aren't all that accurate or reliable, at least compared to what we've seen with the Oculus Touch remotes so far.
A recent VentureBeat editorial called the Move remotes the "PlayStation VR's weakness," and it makes a compelling argument. We think they'll still be fine for a lot of experiences, and look forward to playing Rez Infinite and 100ft Robot Golf with them, but wonder if the motion controls will feel very quaint and limited to anyone who's had a taste of the Rift or Vive's newer options.
Winner: Oculus Rift
Games, games, games
Now here's where the PlayStation VR could assert itself as the must-have headset: game quality and selection. Thanks to Sony's legacy in the console space and the immense success of the PlayStation 4, the console maker has been able to line up an impressive selection of big-name brands and exclusive VR debuts.
For example, Resident Evil 7 will be fully playable in VR, plus there's Batman: Arkham VR, Star Wars Battlefront: X-Wing VR Mission, the Final Fantasy XV VR Experience, and the Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare VR experience. As far as exclusives, RIGS: Mechanized Combat League is one of the best things we've played in VR on any platform, plus Farpoint and Rez Infinite are highlights and there's plenty more.
There's a lot to like on the Rift, too, including Edge of Nowhere, The Climb, Project Cars, Lucky's Tale, and Chronos, while games like Eve Valkyrie, Job Simulator, and Adr1ft will be available on both platforms.
With a PC headset, you get more access to experimental VR offerings from indies, and can find a lot more content or adapt it for VR viewing. That'll be less true on a closed console system, where there's a higher barrier of entry for developers – but Sony has established itself as being incredibly indie-friendly, so even weird and small games can get on PS4 for PSVR.
The Rift will have a several-month lead on the PlayStation VR by the time Sony's headset releases this October, but Sony has been working with developers for a couple years now to developer VR content – and we'll have at least 50 games to choose from by the end of 2016.
It's too early to call right now, and some of this verdict will come down to preference: the PlayStation VR may have more of the bigger brands and familiar console experiences reimagined for VR, while the Oculus Rift and PC platform offer a wider array of games, more indie experiences, and added diversity. We'll have to see how it pans out this autumn and into 2017.
Empty your wallet
As hinted before, there's no competition here: the PlayStation VR experience is markedly cheaper than the Oculus Rift's at present (and likely into this autumn). The Rift headset sells for US$600 and requires a roughly US$1500 computer, while the PlayStation VR headset is US$400 and needs a sub-US$400 game console. That's a dramatic difference.
There are other costs to consider: the PlayStation Camera and Move controllers for PSVR, and the add-on Touch controllers for Rift, but nothing's going to get these price points close enough to battle over. Even if we project the PlayStation 4K console to release around US$600 – truly a guess, by the way – it's still a disparity of several hundred quid between the experiences.
Obviously, you get a sharper, more graphically impressive, and potentially more precise VR experience with the Rift, and that can certainly make for more immersive games as well. But the PlayStation VR's buy-in cost is so appealing that any weaknesses can be more easily overlooked – and the PlayStation VR has a better chance of pushing into the mainstream at that price.
Winner: PlayStation VR
Really, that last paragraph kind of sums it up, doesn't it? The Oculus Rift is built for the early adopter right now – the one who can spend bundles of cash on a gaming rig and specialised headset, and thus will experience top-of-the-line VR for his or her ample investment.
The PlayStation VR, on the other hand, will be a lot more approachable: it's built for a console you probably already have in your living room, and if not, the buy-in cost isn't as extreme. And it will likely launch with bigger-name titles than the Rift, which makes it a better sell for the less-hardcore crowd. Plus, the PlayStation 4K could close the gap on quality while still likely leaving a large overall price difference between the two options.
From what we've tried, the PlayStation VR experience doesn't hit the same peaks that the Rift is capable of, but it's still impressive – and fun, most importantly. The Rift might have a higher technical upside, but the PlayStation VR's potential to permeate the mainstream and bring millions more people into VR can't be denied.
So, how much are you willing to spend, and which games are most appealing to you? Sort that out and you'll have a good idea of your near-term VR future. And we'll have the final verdict on this battle royale as soon as our PlayStation VR review sample arrives.