Getting in on the ground floor of virtual reality can be an expensive decision. Headsets from HTC and Facebook’s Oculus will run you up to $1,200 – and that’s not even including the equal cost of a Windows-based PC powerful enough to drive the third dimension into your eyeballs.
The low-end market has largely been dominated by Samsung and its Android-based smartphones, which can provide you with a VR experience at around $100 for the headset. If you’re in that club, run – don’t walk – to the Gear VR for the best low-end experience possible.
But what if you’re living in Apple’s walled garden? The Zeiss VR One headset is the best option I’ve encountered so far for those who worship at the Altar of Steve Jobs.
And that’s largely due to the hardware quality. The maker of the VR One, Carl Zeiss, creates lenses that have become the industry standard in traditional photography. And, not surprisingly, your VR experience relies heavily on high quality optical lenses.
The VR One outperforms the Oculus Rift in this category, with its ability to avoid the light blare and fuzziness seen around the tops and bottoms of the most high-end headsets. Unlike Samsung’s Gear VR or other low-end units, Zeiss uses a “tray” system to ensure your iPhone is perfectly lined up between your eyes. Make sure you get the tray that matches your device (the iPhone 6 tray also worked with my iPhone 7).
Overall, the VR One has a very strong build quality. Unlike the Oculus Rift, there’s no light leakage to distract you from your VR experience. The opaque front of the headset is actually translucent: if your app supports augmented reality through your iPhone camera, the camera can see through the bezel to superimpose a virtual world over your real one.
Wearing the VR One for extended periods isn’t uncomfortable, though you’re likely to finish any VR session with an imprint of the headset around your face.
This is the case for all headsets, even though they largely encourage you to keep the unit loose against your noggin. The top strap helps keep the unit from sliding down the bridge of your nose while the back strap keeps it firmly attached to your face.
EASE OF SET UP
What this headset provides in the way of superior build quality and optics, it lacks in ease of setup.
Since the VR One is based on Google’s Cardboard headset (literally made out of cardboard) there aren’t any real controls. The Samsung Gear VR has a touch-sensitive multi control panel on the right temple, and the VR One does support the Cardboard “button” – but you’re largely pointing at things with your head.
But before you even slide the tray into the Easy Bake Oven-esque slot and lock it into place, you need to tell the Cardboard-compatible app what the specifications are of your headset.
Fortunately, Zeiss has a QR code printed on the box that it comes in: Point your VR app camera at the code and it automagically knows the field of view and the space between the two lenses.
Placing the QR code on the box is a total fail. It would make more sense for it to be on the side of the headset itself. After all, who keeps the box?
Like Samsung Gear VR, the graphics quality largely depends on the resolution of the screen. I find the iPhone resolution superior to Samsung smartphones, but the fanboys will blame my alleged adoration of Steve Jobs for that assessment.
The real graphics quality, however, is in the flawless execution of 3D graphics. Apple’s new Metal engine is top notch for games, and is at least equal to the offering from Samsung.
IS IT A VR GAME CHANGER?
Until Apple inevitably unveils its own augmented reality or virtual reality headset, the VR One is leagues above the avalanche of cheap alternatives flooding out of China. Apple would be well advised to turn to Zeiss for its lenses as most of the world’s best camera makers did in the photography world. If you want to hold your own against your Samsung friends, the VR One is your best bet.
Read more from our special series on virtual reality:
- Samsung Gear VR review: Portable, affordable and your best low-cost VR option
- HTC Vive review: Why this $1,149 device is the virtual reality leader
- Oculus Rift: Unboxing the first-mover in virtual reality headsets
- Samsung Gear VR: Unboxing a low-cost virtual reality option
- Zeiss VR One: Unboxing the headset built for both iPhone and Android
- HTC Vive hands-on: First impressions with the 'Cadillac' of VR tech