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VR headset (virtual reality headset)

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

A virtual reality headset is a heads-up display (HUD) that enables users to experience and interact with simulated environments through a first-person view (FPV).

VR headsets create a convincing replacement of the user’s environment with virtual reality content, such as a movie, a game or prerecorded content from a 360-degree capturing camera. 360-degree VR simulates an environment that surrounds the user, affording them the freedom to look around just as they can in ordinary reality.

Although virtual reality has been around for years, the hardware to experience it has been lacking in the consumer market. The use of multiple projectors was fairly effective but was an expensive, bulky, power-hungry and hot way to experience VR. VR headsets and VR smartphone apps use technology such as gaze tracking, IR sensors, gyroscopes and accelerometers to move the user’s view naturally. They often include stereo, surround or even 3D sound. Much development goes into improving these systems and eliminating latency to reduce disorientation, headaches and nausea.

There are two main types of VR headsets currently available to the consumer market. High-end systems involve a headset that plugs into a high-performance PC for content, while less complex devices are designed to hold the user’s smartphone, which displays VR content. Some smartphone-based VR systems are designed to fasten onto the user’s head while others are handheld. Despite their simple nature, devices like these can make for a surprisingly compelling experience and offer the benefit of greater portability.

Current and upcoming VR headset competition:
Oculus Rift is the computer-based system that reignited interest in virtual reality when the Oculus VR startup launched their wildly successful Kickstarter campaign. Rift works with positioning technology that lets the user move physically through 3D space and has an X-box One controller as well as Touch controllers for virtual hands.

Microsoft’s Hololens is a standalone VR headset. The system features 3D spatialized sound, Wi-Fi, a Kinect-like camera with a 120-degree spatial sensing system, a fleet of gyroscopes and accelerometers and a transparent screen for each eye, all combined in a lightweight, mobile and cool wearable system. 

The HTC Vive plugs into a powerful gaming PC for its performance. Dual base stations allow users to move freely through a 15' X 15' area. The system was developed collaboratively with Portal, a video game software company.

PlayStation VR works with PlayStation 4 rather than a PC. The system duplicates the headset VR display on a TV.

Samsung Gear VR is basically a fancy container for a smartphone that relies on the phone's hardware. The system, which works with high-end Samsung Galaxy models, was developed in collaboration with Oculus VR.

Google Cardboard is a container type made of plain cardboard, relying on the phone for its hardware. There are a number of inexpensive headsets based on the original open source model.

This was last updated in March 2016

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