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Virtual reality for beginners: Everything you need to know to wrap your head around VR

Hayden Dingman | July 20, 2015
Two years and five iterations of the Oculus Rift later, it's finally time to start writing about virtual reality as a thing that's happening, not something that will happen. Less than six months from now the first of the heavy hitter consumer-grade virtual reality sets will hit market--Valve and HTC's Vive headset--and a few months after that we'll see the Rift finally do the same.

But that's for future generations of VR. For now, Facebook seems content to let the Rift be the multimedia device it was originally planned to be.

Be prepared

Okay, so maybe (hopefully) you've read all this and you're like, "Wow this virtual reality thing sounds really cool and I'd like to get in on this. Or at least try it."

If you already own a high-end gaming PC, the good news is you're probably ready to go. The recommended specs for the Rift are as follows:

  • Nvidia GTX 970/Radeon R9 290
  • Intel i5-4590
  • 8GB of RAM

That's actually surprisingly reasonable, considering what the Rift is doing. Most people (not necessarily you, but most) are still playing games on a 1920x1080 (a.k.a. 1080p) monitor at 60 frames per second. The Rift/Vive's screens run at a total resolution of 2160x1200 at 90 frames per second.

And this time, the PC crowd's obsession with framerate is actually for a very good reason: So you don't get sick. One of the big complaints about early Rift models was motion sickness. However, this is a problem that mostly goes away when you raise the refresh rate. Oculus's John Carmack has said he'd like to hit 120Hz in the future, but 90Hz was a baseline.

As for the Vive, we don't know what the recommended PC specs are yet--but I'd expect them to be close (if not totally in line) with Oculus's.

Do I even need a PC?

A quick tangent: You could go the mobile VR route. Last year Samsung and Oculus partnered to release the GearVR, which uses the Galaxy Note 4 for processing power and its display. Then they released an updated version this year for the Galaxy S6.

There are pros and cons to this approach though. The major pro is that there are no wires attached. You can spin around in a chair for hours and never get tangled. And GearVR runs quite well--better than you'd probably expect, considering it's phone hardware.

The downside: It's expensive. Both the Note 4 and S6 run about $600 on their own, and then you need to pay another $200 for the GearVR headset itself. And there's no guarantee how long your particular GearVR model will stay relevant--phone hardware iterates so quickly, the device could be outdated next year (or six months down the line, even). With a computer, you can always upgrade the internals.

Okay, here's my wallet

There's no getting around it: Virtual reality is an expensive hobby--even more so if you're trying to get your computer up to snuff.

The main issue is we still don't know actual prices on a lot of this stuff. Valve and Oculus are playing the positioning game, waiting to see who flinches first. But we can maybe make some estimates based on past statements and comparable hardware.


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