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VR & AR Shopping For The Ho Ho Holidays 2017

This post was originally featured on Forbes.com on November 22, 2017

With the arrival of Windows MR compatible headsets and a new consumer Augmented Reality HMD for mobile Star Wars games, this Christmas is brimming with options for those interested in entering the world of VR and AR. Buyers will find is that there are a robust and growing selection of both free and paid experiences now, including new VR versions of AAA games like “Doom” and “Fallout.” The bad news is that for the high-end Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, a gaming computer, which features a super fast advanced graphics card, is required. These computers have not come down in price, one of the factors that forced the makers of high-end VR, including Playstation VR, to cut prices this summer. This helped 10%. The fact that there are only 20M VR capable PCs in the market, and their stubbornly high prices, puts high-end VR out of reach for most consumers. If you already own a Playstation 4, you’re only $300 away from the best VR has to offer in the home, which has made PSVR the most popular advanced platform, with nearly two million sold (out of a VR-capable install base of 60M consoles).

There are several good lower cost mobile VR options for less than $100, provided you have a compatible phone. For Google Daydream this is well-reviewed new Pixel 2 (the camera is crazy good), and for Samsung Gear VR (which uses the Oculus store) you need their Galaxy phone.

At the moment, I’m partial to Star Wars Jedi Challenge, a very powerful mobile AR head mounted display from Lenovo for $200. The whole family can have fun with this over the holidays. If you love Star Wars and want to get a glimpse of what real AR entertainment looks like, you have to buy this. I bought one for my adult son (who btw does not read my columns; maybe he should get a $14.97 Merge Cube instead?)

Holochess isn’t just for Wookies anymore.​

Although we’re focused here on AR & VR, we are offering legit advice for the holidays, so we’d be remiss to leave out digital home assistants (home AI), Google Home ($49-$129) and Amazon Alexa ($49-$149). These are wonderful, low priced and useful (“Alexa, play news”, “Alexa, play Misty for Me”, “Google, how do I say ‘dog’ in German?”, “Google, Turn out the lights”, etc.). If you’ve got a limited budget and a long list, a bag full of Google Home Minis, or Alexa Echo Dots, might make you very popular.

Thanks to Santa’s helpers Samuel Steinberger, Michael Eichenseer, and Samantha Wolfe for helping sort the bag below.

It all started with the idea of an AR light sabre in Mike Goslin’s group at Disney advanced consumer products.

By combining Augmented Reality, Star Wars, broadly appealing gameplay, an accessible $200 price, and exclusive distribution through Best Buy, Disney & Lenovo may just have the hit of the Christmas season. Slide your cell phone into the top of the plastic headset, fire up your lightsaber, and fight the stereoscopic enemies beamed onto the plastic visor of the headset, creating the illusion of ghostlike “holograms” in the real world. Jedi Challengecomes with three games: Lightsaber Battles, Strategic Combat, and Holochess. While progressing through the Galaxy, players can achieve multiple Jedi mastery levels from Padawan to Knight and eventually Master. As you unlock the ranks of the Jedi Order the lightsaber will change color. A must-have for Star Warsfans, it’s possible with frequent updates that Star Wars AR could be with us for some time. — Charlie Fink

Acer’s Windows MR headset is lightweight and features a flip up visor and microphone. It set up in minutes.

Was it getting dark already? I’d just taken a five-minute breather from playing Steam VR’s Paintball and realized I’d been playing for a solid four hours. I hadn’t eaten. I’d forgotten about doing my laundry. I’d completely lost track of time. My first experience with Acer’s Windows Mixed Reality headset was a smashing success.

But before I get into the details, let’s take a look at the device itself.

The Acer Windows Mixed Reality HMD is a thing of beauty. The blue and black visor is lightweight and comfortable, even over glasses. It’s an inside-out HMD, which means the position of the visor is tracked by the visor itself, not by additional outside devices that need to be installed. It also means it’s the perfect size for my tiny New York City apartment living room, which is smaller than most bedrooms.

For my first foray into Windows MR, I’d invited my girlfriend and another friend over to check out the headset and provide a broader sample of the experience. When we first paired the controllers with the computer there was an audible “ooh” as they lit up. The controllers are responsive, although, after a few hours of action-packed VR, I found my hands losing their grip at times and cramping up.

We followed the instructions on the screen to calibrate the set and fed the meager boundaries of my living room into the software. As the Windows Mixed Reality software launched, I was transported to an airy, spacious home on the side of a cliff overlooking fantastical floating islands, with a backyard view of snow-covered mountains. My home theater (I now had a home theater!) had a retractable roof. I could walk around my house, peg photos on the walls, and watch Penrose’s “The Rose and I” a short VR movie.

While my friend and girlfriend took the same VR home walk-around, I set up a Steam VR account. I’d heard about Rec Room’s Paintball game and wanted to give it a go. Little did I realize at the time that I was about to wave goodbye to all my afternoon plans.

For the rest of the day the three of us alternated playing VR paintball, watching VR movies, and exploring what Windows MR had to offer. I wasn’t disappointed and my girlfriend said she was still seeing paintballs flying at her even after shutting down the HMD for the night — a sure sign of a good experience. If this isn’t the must-have for the end of 2017, I don’t know what is. It’s made me a VR believer and — judging by the number of newcomers flinging virtual paintballs at each other — I’m not alone. — Samuel Steinberger

HTC Vive and controllers $599.

The Oculus, Vive, and PSVR are the premier gaming VR headsets on the market. Each headset has its benefits and limitations, and each one works best for certain occasions. If you’re interested in VR you can’t go wrong with any of these three headsets. They are all content rich including experiences that are cross-platform between all three.

The PSVR is an easy choice if your household already has a PS4 in the living room. This holiday season a PS4 and PSVR bundle is $500 and is plug and play. Within minutes you’re living room turns into a virtual world. However, PSVR is made for sitting or standing, not moving around. If you do desire full room-scale play, you’ll have to look into the PC connected VR headsets.

The Oculus Rift has made waves with its precipitous price drops. Currently tagged at $399 for the headset and touch controllers, and marked down to $350 for the holidays, the price makes the cost of a computer capable of running an Oculus Rift somewhat more palatable. There is an extra cost of $60 for a third camera if you want to play full room-scale. After spending a thousand or more for a PC capable of running a Rift, you will be very impressed with the selection of exclusive games and high amount of cross-platform play.

Oculus Rift and Touch Controller bundle, now $399, two hundred dollars less than the HTC Vive.

The HTC Vive offers a headset designed from the ground up for room-scale with access to a massive library of Steam games. Whereas the Oculus needs a separate third camera in order to smoothly operate in room-scale, the Vive does so with 2 lighthouses, both of which do not have to be connected via USB to the computer. Coming in at $599 alongside a VR ready PC makes the Vive the most expensive of the bunch, though not much more than a room-scale ready Oculus + Touch.

At $299 Sony Playstation VR is the low price leader. Sony said it has sold over 1 M units. More than Vive and Rift combined.

The PSVR may be the most successful of the VR headsets so far. The games are great too, with tons of PS4 exclusives. PSVR has one of the only AAA VR titles to date: Resident Evil 7, as well as Skyrim VR. A Skyrim VR PSVR bundle will be on sale this holiday season for $449, provided you already have a PS4. An Aim Controller in the shape of two-handed gun comes bundled with Farpoint, a PSVR exclusive shooter, and will cost you an extra $80. Positive reviews for the bundle say it’s worth the cost.

There are quite a few free experiences for the Oculus that make the headset a bargain, as well as high quality exclusives developed through the Oculus developer program. One of the most popular multiplayer VR games Echo Arena is exclusive to the Oculus at this time, pitting teams of 3 players against each other in a zero gravity ultimate frisbee style arena.

The Vive has the largest selection of titles to play, many of which are small games built by indie developers. Most games for the Vive are cross-platform with the Oculus if not the PSVR too, but that does not stop Vive exclusives from popping up. A prime example this holiday season is Fallout 4 VR.

Software bundles abound. Vive thinks this AAA title from Bethesda Softworks will move a lot of headsets.

Each of the three headsets are quite similar when it comes to visual quality. PSVR is the only system that is essentially plug and play. Both the Vive and Oculus require base stations/cameras to be set up around the playspace, and calibration to take place before a user can play.

Room-scale is what the Vive was built for, and the Oculus can achieve room-scale with a third camera, but the PSVR lacks full room-scale.

People love it when VR scares the sh*t out of them!

This holiday season a PSVR headset, controllers, camera, and Skyrim VR game bundle will cost $449. A PS4 slim will be priced at $199 alongside a bare-bones PSVR headset as low as $299. An Oculus Rift will be priced as low as $349, while a VR ready PC will cost ~$1000, and don’t forget the $60 for that third camera. The HTC Vive with Fallout 4 remains priced at $599.

Assuming you already have a high-end gaming PC, it is up to you to choose which headset you prefer. But if you have a PS4 at home, then PSVR is the way to go. A PS4 Pro is recommended for PSVR though. — Michael Eichenseer

Google Daydream is the most comfortable of the mobile VR headsets.

Comfort and flexibility aren’t words you normally associate with VR. However, if you prioritize those qualities, Google’s $99 Daydream View is the mobile phone headset for you. The second-generation 360-degree video mobile device has three choices of color fabric (charcoal, fog, and coral), a comfortable shape, and, as long as your phone is Daydream compatible (such as the Pixel 2, Moto Z, Galaxy S8), you are good to go. Like its cousin Google Cardboard, you simply place your phone in the headset with no need to connect it electronically. However, if you must wear glasses with a headset, try the Daydream on before committing. Although not official, analysts have estimated that there will be about 6.8 million of Google Daydreams shipped this year. That’s pretty impressive for the new kid on the block. The Daydream headset uses Google Play (like other Android devices) and has about 200 apps (about half for free), up from 50 last year, with more on the way. The Daydream has some exclusive apps including Google’s Play Movies, YouTube, and Virtual, Virtual Reality. Although the Daydream isn’t technically “VR” like the higher-end HTC Vive, the Daydream’s wireless remote controller is integrated into every game allowing a certain amount of interactivity for driving a virtual car or yielding a sword. All this adds up to a comfortable headset that lets you get lost in a 360-degree world for hours at a time. — Samantha Wolfe

The Samsung Gear has shipped nearly 10M units since its introduction in 2015, making it by far the most popular mobile VR headset (unless you count Google Cardboard).

If you are looking for a more substantial mobile phone-based headset with a deeper library of content, look no further than the $129 Samsung Gear VR (on sale for $89 and less). The 2017 Oculus-powered headset is lighter than last year’s version, has a wide 101-degree field-of-view, a wireless controller, padding that easily accommodates glasses, and a focus adjustment on top of the device. All of this adds up to a better feeling of immersion than other mobile headsets. This is why it’s sold over 8 million units making it the most popular out there, besides the entry-level Google Cardboard. Although not true-VR like the higher end Oculus Rift, the Samsung Gear VR still offers access to the rich library of games and experiences within the Oculus store. The set up is a bit awkward, but the content available is worth it. There’s well-known TV and Movie title offshoots like Stranger Things: Face Your Fears and Blade Runner 2049: Replicant Pursuit, as well as favorites such as Minecraft Gear VR Edition, Eve Gunjack, and Next VR for live sports and music in 360. Since Facebook bought Oculus, there is a push for more social games within the Oculus headsets, which you don’t find on the Daydream. As the Gear VR requires a Samsung Galaxy phone (S6 or later), if you have a Samsung phone or were considering getting one, this is the perfect headset choice. One exciting thing to note, if you purchase the Samsung Galaxy S8 or the Galaxy Note8 Edition, it’s packaged with the Samsung Gear VR and compatible with the Google Daydream. — Samantha Wolfe

At $14.97 the Merge Cube is the ultimate mobile AR stocking stuffer.a

The best thing about the Merge Cube is that it’s only $14.97, and it’ll keep your kids busy for hours, perhaps longer. At this price, it’s a can’t miss stocking stuffer.

The Merge Cube will work with older smartphones that cannot otherwise do AR, but it may cause them to run hot and drain batteries.

The award-winning soft foam Merge Googles sold everywhere are made just for kids and they love em. Works with the Merge Cube and any VR apps on the phone. A best seller. — Charlie Fink

At $50, Zappar makes “Magic Leap magic cheap”. Not the markers on the wall.

It’s popular that with the introduction of depth-sensing cameras usings ARKit marker AR may have had its moment. Zapbox makes “Magic Leap magic cheap with its unique Cardboard HMD and controllers for your Mobile Phone.

This is some good clean fun at a great price with a couple of dozen third-party apps. Unfortunately, this UK based company has the item on backorder, and it cannot arrive in time for Christmas. — Charlie Fink

Never take your eyes off the road: NUVIZ offers a fantastic, new, easy to use Heads Up Display for bikers.

Winner of a 2018 CES Innovation Award, NUVIZ is the first fully-integrated Heads-Up Display (HUD) designed specifically for the needs of motorcycle riders. It displays customizable information in the rider’s natural line of sight and features an intuitive eyes-on-the-road handlebar controller and built-in HD action camera. NUVIZ brings together all of the important functions of your navigation, communication and media devices into a single device. I tried it. It’s really nice. Surprisingly so. — Charlie Fink

Nintendo may sell as many as 14 M of their new Switch portable game console this year.

Spoiler alert: there is an elephant in the room. I can smell it. It’s called the Nintendo Switch ($299). In case you haven’t seen it, it’s a new, super popular, handheld game console that may be the toy of the year. Superdata Research, one of the leading analysts of the 98.3 BN games business, thinks the Switch could rack up another 5.6 M in sales this Christmas — 14 M since it’s launch in March. TBH, it’s hard to see how Jedi Challenge or anything else will come even close.

The Switch features some of the most popular games in the world. I worry this is going to suck away a lot of dollars and attention we’d like to see in VR. The competition in the game area is fierce. It’s almost twice as large as music and movies combined. Gamers are highly satisfied with their existing consoles and 2D games. The predicted rush to VR hasn’t happened yet. Let’s make a dent in that this year.

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