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Virtual Reality

So what is Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality is a computer-generated environment that lets you experience a different reality. A VR headset fits around your head and over your eyes, and visually separates you from whatever space you’re physically occupying. Images are fed to your eyes from two small lenses. Through VR you can virtually hike the Grand Canyon, tour the Louvre, experience a movie as if you are part of it, and immerse yourself in a video game without leaving your couch.

Your five best options for VR

VR comes in a few different forms. There’s the cheap headset that works with your phone and there’s the much more expensive option that requires a powerful PC or gaming console and some space to move around. Whichever path you choose, here are your best options.

Google Cardboard

The easiest and cheapest way to try virtual reality, Google Cardboard is just a piece of folded cardboard with some cheap embedded lenses. When you stick your phone inside and press it up to your face, you can feel like you’re in another world.

Samsung Gear VR

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The best smartphone-based VR headset (for now), Samsung’s Gear VR costs just $99 (£80, AU$159) — assuming you already have a recent Samsung phone. It has more sophisticated sensors than Google Cardboard and is relatively comfortable to wear. Plus it’s got a decent library of purpose-built apps and games.

Oculus Rift

The $599 Oculus Rift (£499, AU$649) is far more immersive than strapping a phone to your face. It tracks your head in all directions, so you can lean in and get right up close to virtual objects. The catch: It requires a powerful gaming PC to generate its graphics, along with a tether leading up to your head.

HTC Vive

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The ultimate VR experience — for now — the $799 (£689) HTC Vive lets you reach out and grab objects in virtual reality, and even walk around a room. Again, you are tethered to a powerful gaming PC, plus you need to clear your living-room-furniture and plug in loads of cables to fulfill your holodeck dreams.

Sony PlayStation VR

The affordable alternative to an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, the $399 Sony PlayStation VR (£349, AU$550) will let you grab things in VR without requiring a pricy gaming PC as intermediary. Instead, it works with the PlayStation 4 console that you might already own. Just know you’ll need to add controllers, and you shouldn’t expect the graphics to be quite as good as those of the Oculus or Vive.

Here are the ways you’ll be able to use VR

Virtual reality isn’t just a viewmaster for your video games. It’s an entirely new medium whose true purpose is slowly being realized. Here are a few of the ways VR will be used over the next few years.

Entertainment

From films made by Hollywood to live-streamed concerts and theatrical experiences, VR has become a place to view videos that surround you. New cameras are being created to capture these VR stories, and tools to upload and livestream them are growing in number. Soon, these experiences might not even seem like films at all.

Artistry & design

Imagine building a real home with virtual tools, or designing parts for a new car as if it already existed in the real world. Imagine painting a 3D masterpiece while collaborating with friends around the globe. Apps and wand-like controllers are already making VR an amazing playground. Soon enough, these tools could become indispensable for a new generation of 3D design.

Gaming

Obviously, video games are one of the main applications for virtual reality as of today. But VR will give game designers the freedom to take games to incredible new places. They can also find new audiences now that players can just reach out and touch things, and turn their head to look, instead of mastering a complex controller covered with joysticks and buttons. (You can visit How to build a VR-ready PC Post)

Education & simulation

Medicine, chemistry, physics, astronomy: VR can model the world in an incredibly visual way. And, it can also allow those worlds to be expanded and shrunk, played with and entered. Students could take a class trip to ancient Egypt, or try an open-heart surgery without any risks: VR simulations can offer practice runs at techniques, designs and ideas.

Tourism & exploration

Virtual tourism is the next best thing to being there. You could visit Paris, Mars, or the bottom of the ocean. Whether you’re watching a 360-degree video someone shot, or a computationally generated 3D simulation, you can shut out the real world and replace it with your destination of choice. One day, you may be able to explore your own memories as well — imagine recording them with a 360-degree camera, then looking around to see what you missed in the moment.

Psychology & meditation

VR can become a private space for your mind — a place to relax and think. Or it can be a place to explore something uncomfortable in a protective simulation. Virtual worlds can be very removed from the real world, or be labs to explore human behavior. Studies have shown that VR is so distracting, it can be a surprisingly effective painkiller compared with traditional medicine.

Real estate & shopping

Imagine being able to tour a prospective home from miles away, walking right through the property as if you were there. Imagine placing life-size models of your own furniture into that house, to see if they fit. Now imagine walking into a virtual clothing store with infinite shelf space, where you can see and try any shirt, blouse or pair of shoes on sale. Shopping will never be the same.

Social & telepresence

Just because you’re inside a headset doesn’t mean you’re alone. You could jump into a video game avatar to chat and play, or commute to work by inhabiting a telepresence robot with cameras mounted on its body. Can we connect and meaningfully communicate across distances that way? It’s not clear, but developers are already experimenting with the possibilities.

Google Territory

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2016 was a big year for VR, and it’s about to get bigger. Google will be launching its Daydream VR platform in a matter of weeks, Bloomberg reports.

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is said to be investing big money on content for the platform. Much of this is going toward development of video games and apps, licensing sports leagues and shooting 360-degree videos, many of which include YouTube stars, according to the publication.

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Daydream is being built into the Android 7.0 Nougat operating system, which launched this week. It said back in May that Samsung, HTC, ZTE, Huawei, Xiaomi, Alcatel, Asus and LG had agreed to make “Daydream ready” smartphones.

The idea of the platform is to be the Android of VR. Google will provide a VR platform for other companies to build hardware around, like how it provides an operating system, Android, for companies like Samsung and HTC to build smartphones around.

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However, we’ve not yet seen any headsets designed specifically for the platform.

Google was contacted for comment but did not immediately respond.

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Xbox One vs. PS4

PlayStation 4 review: Great gaming for 2016 and beyond

THE GOOD The PlayStation 4 serves up dazzling graphics, runs on a simplified and logical interface and boasts a fantastic controller. It has the upper hand in indie games and can stream a constantly growing list of legacy titles via PlayStation Now. The PS4 makes it super-easy to capture and broadcast gameplay online and generally delivers a zippier performance than its direct competition. It also doubles as a Blu-ray player and solid media-streaming box.

THE BAD The Xbox One has a slight edge in non-gaming entertainment features such as streaming content and media portal apps.

THE BOTTOM LINE The PlayStation 4’s beautiful graphics, smart interface, blazing performance, near-perfect controller and better indie offerings give it an edge over the Xbox One — though that edge is ever-shrinking.

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As the PlayStation 4 quickly approaches its third birthday, let’s reassess the current state of Sony’s flagship game machine.

When the competing consoles were first released, we gave the edge to the PS4 over the Xbox One. And at this point in time, the PS4 is still looking good. It continues to improve thanks to regular system firmware updates and a consistent stream of console-exclusive independent games. Exclusive AAA-titles are less frequent, but the PS4 has some promising titles coming down the pike, including The Last Guardian and Horizon Zero Dawn, both scheduled to arrive in 2016. But if you’re concentrating more on the exclusives 2015 has to offer, the Xbox One wins that immediate holiday battle.

The majority of games are available on both platforms and PC. We call these multiplatform games. In our testing, we’ve found that a handful of titles perform better on a PlayStation 4. The most recent example of this is Call of Duty: Black Ops III.

To be clear: The PS4 and the Xbox One are very closely matched. Both offer a growing library of third-party games — mainstays like the Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed series, as well as newer titles like Fallout 4 and Rainbow Six Siege. And both double as full-service entertainment systems, with built-in Blu-ray players and streaming services like Netflix, YouTube and Hulu Plus.

At this stage in the game we’re still partial to the PlayStation 4. Our reasoning is below — along with a few caveats about areas where the PS4 can improve.

PS4 consoles and bundles

No matter how you purchase a PlayStation 4, it’ll ship with an HDMI cable, a DualShock 4 wireless controller, a USB charging cable and an earbud headset for game chat. The standard console goes for $350 though it seems like at almost any given time a PS4 bundle is being offered by Sony or another retailer. After a recent $50 price cut, the PS4 and Xbox One are nearly identically priced.

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PS4 bundles usually provide the best overall value if you’re looking to get started from scratch. Some franchise titles get exclusive PS4 consoles included in their bundles, most recently seen with the Star Wars: Battlefront PS4 SKU.

Major PS4 exclusive games (available now or soon):

  • Bloodborne
  • Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection
  • Infamous: Second Son
  • LittleBigPlanet 3
  • Until Dawn

Major PS4 exclusive games due by 2016 and beyond:

  • Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
  • The Last Guardian
  • Horizon Zero Dawn
  • No Man’s Sky (console exclusive)
  • Dreams
  • Street Fighter V (console exclusive)
  • Ratchet and Clank reboot

PS4 ecosystem

The PlayStation ecosystem includes various products with some shared functionality. For example, the PS Vita can stream PS4 games via “remote play” mode. The PlayStation TV (PSTV) can also stream PS4 games as well as play Vita games and legacy PlayStation titles. Select phones from Sony’s Xperia line can also stream gameplay from the PlayStation 4.

Sony also offers PlayStation Vue, a cable TV alternative starting at $50 a month available on the PS3 and PS4. PlayStation Now, the company’s legacy game-streaming service, is available on every PlayStation platform and lets subscribers play games from the Sony vault. If you purchase in three-month increments, it works out to around $15 a month.

Firmware updates

Sony regularly updates the PS4’s firmware — as of this writing it’s currently at version 3.11. Recent updates to the console have brought along features like:

  • YouTube live game broadcasting
  • Party chat
  • Game communities and events sections
  • Suspend/resume: The console can be put into “rest mode” and then woken up to resume gameplay without needing to relaunch a game.
  • Share Play: Now PS4 owners can “host” a play session and “hand off” the game controller for up to 60 minutes to one of their friends on the PlayStation Network. At the end of the session players can simply restart. Share Play can also work with coop games that let two players engage at the same time. Share Play works with any PS4 game and only the host player needs a copy of the game and a PlayStation Plus membership.
  • Restore: You can now back up data stored on a PS4 and restore it.

The 2.00 firmware had some notable bugs, but Sony has addressed them with a recent 2.01 update. Firmware version 2.02 (also a forced update) brought along more universal stability to the system.

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PS4 pros

Here are the areas where the PS4 excels — and where it has an edge over the Xbox One:

PlayStation Plus

Compared with Xbox Live’s Gold membership, PlayStation Plus still makes it out as the better overall deal. The Instant Game Collection titles that come with the subscription can be played across various PlayStation platforms and the quality of these titles tends to be higher, though recently the free games have started to underwhelm. You need PlayStation Plus to play online, and it also offers discounts, exclusive betas and demos, cloud save storage, game trials and automatic system updates.

PlayStation Plus is $50, £40 or AU$70 a year, while Xbox Live Gold is $60, £40 or AU$85 per year, although you may be able to get discounted vouchers from retailers.

System interface

Overall, the PS4’s interface feels zippier than the Xbox One’s, even with Xbox’s new fall 2015 update. Games install quicker and moving around menus is a much smoother experience. It’s by far an easier system to navigate, as opposed to the Xbox One’s sometimes confusing presentation.second-post-playstation-41

Game streaming

Sony’s answer to backward compatibility is PlayStation Now, a subscription service that allows PS4 owners to stream a game over the Internet. That said, your experience will vary depending on your Internet connection. Suffice it to say, playing shooters and other “twitch” games on PS Now isn’t great, but it’s certainly improving — as is the growing collection of playable titles. When it launched we wrote PS Now off. Now we think it’s a viable option for those who are passionate about legacy PlayStation games.

Xbox One recently introduced Xbox 360 backward compatibility, which works with physical media, as opposed to PS Now’s digital-only operation.

Performance

Aside from a zippier all-around experience in the system software, the PS4 tends to install games quicker than the Xbox One. There’s also some evidence that multiplatform games play better and run in higher resolutions than they do on the Xbox One. In some cases, the PS4 will also play at a higher frame rate than the Xbox One.

Game broadcasting and social sharing

The DualShock 4 controller has a button dedicated to broadcasting and sharing options. The whole feature set is wonderfully tied into the fabric of the system and makes sharing fairly painless. Players can instantly snap screenshots, tweet photos and broadcast gameplay to Twitch (a free online streaming-gaming video service), all within a few clicks.

PS4 owners can also save these videos and screens and put them on a USB drive, edit them on the PS4 or upload them to YouTube, Facebook or Twitter.

It’s worth noting that publishers can block the ability to share content — it’s usually done to avoid leaking major plot spoilers in a game.second-post-playstation-4-box

Independent games

Sony has committed to bringing popular independent games to PS4. While a lot of these titles have previously been available for PC, games like Rocket League, No Man’s Sky and SOMA (among many others) will only see console debuts on PS4.

User-accessible hard drive

The PS4 ships with a 500GB, 5,400rpm hard drive (and is also available in a 1TB model), but you can easily swap it out for a 2.5-inch SATA drive with a larger capacity or a SSHD or SSD for potentially increased performance. The Xbox One, by comparison, doesn’t allow the swapping of hard drives — instead you have to attach an external USB drive.

DualShock 4 controller

The DualShock 4 is the best PlayStation controller yet and features a front-facing touchpad that can also be clicked. Players can bring their own headphones and plug them directly into the controller so they don’t disturb the neighbors during nighttime gaming.second-post-playstation-414

The controller is very comfortable and can be charged with a Micro-USB cable. The only real downside is the battery: unlike the Xbox One controller’s battery, the PS4’s can’t be replaced. Its battery life is good, but not great.

 

Media playback

The PS4’s media player app supports a wide range of file formats and codecs. Files can be played off a home DLNA server or USB drive.

PS4 cons

Here are the areas where the PS4 could use a little work:

Media apps: Good, but slightly lagging behind the Xbox One

The PS4 offers mainstay media and entertainment apps like Amazon Instant Video, Netflix and Hulu Plus, but is noticeably missing apps that the Xbox One does have, such as ESPN, Comedy Central, Fox and Fios.

There is support for sports, though — PS4 owners can use MLB, NBA (only on PS4), NFL Sunday Ticket and NHL apps.

PlayStation Plus cloud storage

Cloud save storage was recently bumped up to a generous 10GB worth of data, but only for PS+ members. We also think cloud saves should sync automatically no matter which PS4 you’re playing on, instead of gamers having to manually upload saves from machines that aren’t their “primary console.” In this specific category, Xbox One has PS4 beat.

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Wonky eject button

A collection of current PS4 owners have experienced an issue with the PS4’s touch-sensitive eject button. Some complain that it can engage by itself, causing the console to either eject a disc during play or randomly make beeps.

Sony has since corrected this and now 1TB consoles ship with a tactile eject button.

PlayStation VR

PlayStation VR will finally be with us this October and we can’t wait to stick our faces in it. Sony’s PS4 virtual reality headset is coming in way cheaper than the likes of Oculus Rift or HTC’s Vive, with a RRP of just £350/$399.

In here (Virtual Reality post) you’ll find our guide to the best preorder deals out there for the headset, with prices starting around the aforementioned £350/$399. Pricier options also include the PS4 camera. Don’t expect many discounts before release, but we’ll keep you posted if any pop up.

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