Recently, the Ed Tech team has been approached by a few different departments to assist with the acquisition of virtual reality systems for use in creating simulation labs and for learning how to program. As we did preliminary research for the purchases, we found that there was the potential for gaps in understanding the function of the technology that could lead to big problems in the cost and efficiency of virtual reality projects at FSCJ. Prior to making purchases, it is important to recognize what each device needs in order to function properly, and what limitations it may have in terms of available software and functioning.
Currently, virtual reality devices can be divided into two broad categories, those that require the use of a high-powered computer or laptop to function (computer-tethered), and those that rely upon a mobile device to generate sound and images (mobile-tethered). Broadly speaking, those that require a PC generate better graphics and a more immersive experience but are also more expensive. The most well-known examples of VR devices in this category are the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. In contrast, VR headsets that rely on mobile devices to power the experience are cheaper but do not always provide the "wow" factor that users expect from virtual reality devices. In this post, we will take a closer look at PC-tethered VR headsets. In a future post, we will look at mobile VR headsets. If looking for a super low-cost option, check out our post about the mobile-enabled Google Cardboard.
The Oculus Rift is by far the best known virtual reality device on the market. A subsidiary of Facebook, Oculus was the first company to release a viable VR headset that was able to credibly simulate immersive experiences without creating motion sickness issues. It also has some of the best motion control paddles on the market, allowing you to interact a realistic way within the game play or application use. Built-in headphones complete the immersive experience, without canceling out ambient noise.
From a practical standpoint, it is important to know that the Oculus requires a computer with a high-powered processor and graphics card (specifications can be found here), and that the machines provided for FSCJ faculty and staff are not designed to render highly detailed graphics. Computers must also have three USB ports and an HDMI output. When planning a Virtual Reality project, be sure to budget money for the headset, motion controllers, and the computer to power the VR rig.
Having developed their own platform for applications and movies, content can currently be purchased via the Oculus Store and the VR section of the online gaming retailer Steam. The content in the Oculus store is one of the major advantages of the Rift right now. It includes incredibly detailed games, award-winning movies, and stable apps to convert your desktop into Virtual Reality. While there are currently workarounds that allow you to play Oculus games on the HTC Vive, Oculus has not promised to allow full compatibility to users of competing devices for all apps moving forward.
The Vive is a newer and less celebrated VR headset, but, in many cases, it offers a better setup and use experience than the Oculus Rift, but has a higher price. The Vive's major selling point is the fact that it offers "whole room" VR, which allows the user to move freely within a predetermined space. This allows the viewer to have a more immersive experience, getting them off of the couch and into a better-simulated real world experience. It does this by including "lighthouses", bounding sensors that are set up within the room to create a ten square foot "safe" zone. When the user approaches the edge of this area, they will encounter a virtual "wall" that lets them know that they have reached the end of the bounded play area.
While the use of the lighthouses to enable more authentic movement in space provides a major advantage for the Vive, it is disadvantaged in the games and apps department. Vive's gaming platform was developed in conjunction with Steam's parent company Valve, and thus it is intended to use apps purchased through that platform. In order to access games via the Oculus store, users must download third party apps that are not guaranteed to work in perpetuity. It is important, therefore, that users insure (at least at this early stage of technology development) that the apps that they would like to use are available for their chosen device. This, of course, is in addition to insuring that the user's personal computer meets the required specifications for use, which can be found here.
Thus, while both devices provide the best virtual reality experiences available on the consumer market today, each has features that may make them a better fit for specific educational technology projects. Be sure to do ample research prior to making purchases, and feel free to contact the Educational Technology department with any questions you may have.
Not sure that you have thousands to spend for your virtual reality project? Coming soon to the AT Blog: a review of the best mobile VR headsets for device compatibility and cost effectiveness.