HTC Vive

We've been talking a lot about VR recently, and with good reason. There's a lot of exciting things happening all across this emerging tech market, and every company wants in on the action. Google's Cardboard VR initiative makes it simple and inexpensive to get a taste of the VR experience, while the HTC Vive plan to take gaming to an entirely new place later this year with SteamVR.

No one would seriously compare Cardboard to Vive, since one requires a serious gaming PC and the other works with just about every smartphone on the market, but when you look at the headsets side by side you can see how much they all have in common. Since we happened to have a Gear VR and a Google Cardboard unit with us during our last HTC Vive demo, it seemed like the perfect time to see what they look like side by side.

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VR Lenses

The first thing you'll notice with all three of these devices side by side is the sheer size of the lenses in the HTC Vive compared to the other two. A big part of the VR experience is immersion, which basically means the lenses work with the display to fill your field of view and give you the sense that you're somewhere else. It's widely thought the best immersion experiences happen when you go beyond a 100-degree field of view, but HTC demonstrates there's a little more to it than this. Version 2 of Google Cardboard offers a 100-degree FoV, and Samsung's Gear VR offers a 96-degree FoV, but neither of these experiences fill your vision quite like Vive.

That extra 10 degrees isn't all there is to this equation. Where Samsung and Google rely on a widescreen presentation through a landscape smartphone, Vive uses a pair of 1280 x 1080 screens in portrait to fill your eyes. The added vertical space that can't be created by a single smartphone makes a huge difference in creating that immersive experience. To handle that added vertical space, the larger lenses are needed.

There's something to be said for size, portability, and cost, which is where Google and Samsung will always have Vive beat. HTC's hardware is meant to stay in a room, connected to a computer. Google Cardboard is totally collapsible and infinitely more portable than any other VR system out there, not to mention incredibly inexpensive. Samsung's Gear VR and Google Cardboard both work well as portable, shareable experiences with a constant flow of new content. You're unlikely to pass Vive around at a party, even if it is at your house, while Cardboard and Gear VR are inherently social devices.

It's interesting to think about where we will be in a year, where there are distinct categories of VR with different levels of content and multiple experiences that are all equally impressive. Cardboard and Gear VR are clearly the entry level, use everywhere answer, and that is only going to continue to grow in popularity. Meanwhile, by next year, there's going to be this other category of high-end VR setups that rest next to gaming PCs and offer a reality-altering experience to those who want it. There's going to be tons of content that works well between these categories, but the stuff that makes each of these categories truly shine is going to be a lot of fun.