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VR Headsets: Mirage Solo or the Oculus Move

For years now, advocates of virtual reality have been predicting a breakthrough invention was just around the corner: a cheap, comfortable standalone headset that everyone could pick up and wear.

Since the Oculus Rift made its debut on Kickstarter in 2012, VR headsets have had either a PC, a console or a smartphone to operate.

The additional expense and setup required were blamed for VR's relatively slow adoption. The technology's proponents preached patience: a single day, they promised, a headset would come along that packs the display, calculating power and motion sensors into one self-contained unit.

After years of waiting, two of these headsets have arrived. Google and Lenovo introduced the Mirage Solo, which costs $399, and Facebook launched its $199 competitor, Oculus Go.

The all-in-one format makes a massive difference to comfort and ease of use. However, I guess neither headset is instead the"iPhone moment" that VR evangelists were hoping for.

The Oculus Go provides a similar experience to the Gear VR, which included slotting a Samsung Galaxy smartphone into a $99 viewer. Meaning the VR you see is somewhat like your mind being within a fishbowl -- you can look around in 360 degrees, but if you step forward in the actual world, the virtual world doesn't move accordingly. That makes the Oculus Move best suited to use while sitting in a spinning chair.

The Mirage Solo provides a more luxurious set of sensors, allowing the wearer to stand, crouch and lean in their virtual world. These capabilities -- called"six degrees of freedom", or"6DoF" in the jargon -- were formerly only available on the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR or HTC Vive and required an external motion sensor to be placed on a desk or around an area to monitor the headset's moves.

So for $200 over the Oculus Move you can stand up and walk around a bit from the Mirage Solo, moving through the virtual world as you go.

This is no trivial feat, given the majority of the sensing is done through a set of cameras on the front of the headset which makes the wearer seem a bit like a robot. I discovered that the motion-tracking system functioned well, considering it's still a great deal cheaper than a complete PC or console-based setup.

But unlike the"room scale" VR of the HTC Vive, you may only have a few steps in any way before the Mirage's detectors start to shed track. Because all of the processing power is embedded in the headset, as opposed to at the end of a cable at a PC, the quality of the Mirage's images is similar to a smartphone-based VR viewer. Lenovo's headset operates the same Daydream software that's found in several recent Android smartphones, like Google's Pixel.

Both the Oculus Go along with the Mirage Solo operate on Qualcomm chips of this type typically found in smartphones. The Mirage's chip is a stronger one than the Go's, to manage the more advanced monitoring, but they play a number of the exact games, which have more in common with a smartphone compared to a PC or PlayStation.

It's here that I felt that the Mirage is caught in limbo. The head-tracking technology could be remarkable, but the sorts of apps and games it's ready to run to are not quite strong enough to get the most out of the hardware.

Take Bait, as an instance, a relaxed fishing simulator with cartoony graphics that are available on both headsets. The Mirage and Oculus utilise the same sort of motion-sensitive control to cast a line and reel in a fish. In this slow, sedentary encounter, I didn't feel much benefit from having the ability to lean in and scrutinise my grab more tightly on the Mirage.

There are some games, however, that do benefit from the Mirage's better detectors. I could dodge incoming missiles at a snowball fight and duck low trees as I sped down on a snowboard. Regrettably, there are few of those titles thus far, as well as fewer bear revisiting.

That will undoubtedly improve once the Mirage has been available for at least a couple weeks, but Oculus' head start in VR over Google turns out to be a real benefit for the Go.

Monopoly and Boggle will be arriving shortly.

The graphics and games might be more comfortable than the PC-based Rift, but the clarity of the picture on the Go is better than its more expensive sibling.

Not 360-degree, immersive Netflix -- only regular, rectangular 2D Netflix, on a virtual big screen while sitting in a virtual living space.

While the video playback might not be as good as the newest 4K television sets, I found myself watching up to an hour of telly on a vast"display" within a cosy, rustic cottage, complete with virtual couch, coffee table and rock fireplace.

While admittedly antisocial to anyone who happens to be sharing a space with a headset, this may be made to feel less isolating inside VR -- programs like Bigscreen and Oculus's Rooms allow you to watch films along with avatars of your friends, to whom you can chat using the inbuilt microphone.

Indeed, it's sound -- listening and talking -- which is Oculus Go's secret weapon. A pair of speakers is built into the headset, meaning there isn't any need to fiddle around with a separate set of cans.

It might appear a tiny detail, but I found that this helped the Oculus Proceed to conquer one of the most significant flaws I have discovered in the many VR headsets I've tested. It takes very little time, and zero attempts to pick the item up put it on and enter VR. That's a significant difference to a simple smartphone-based VR viewer, let alone the clumsy system of wires, sensors and controls that PC-based systems demand.

The perfect VR headset, however, still seems just out of reach. I want the detectors of Lenovo's Mirage, the matches, sound and usability of the Oculus Go, as well as the full-fledged console images of the PlayStation VR -- which would be a breakthrough. Meanwhile, for the impatient, I'd still suggest Oculus Go as a simple and inexpensive diversion.
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