A Guide to Tethered and Untethered VR Headsets [20 Dec, 2016]

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This beginner’s guide to tethered and untethered VR headsets is written by our Graphics & UIUX Designer, Dor Hershkovich.

Beginner's Guide to Tethered and Untethered VR Headsets - ByondVR Blog
A Beginner’s Guide to Tethered and Untethered VR Headsets

According to a recent study, only 33% of the US population are aware of major VR devices. If you are one of the 67% (or belong to the same group from another part of the world) here’s a simple beginner’s guide to the seemingly complicated world of virtual reality.

In summary, there are 2 types of VR devices – Tethered and Untethered.

Tethered Headsets

A tethered VR headset is one that requires a connection to a computer with a high enough processing power. This strong computing power is necessary to deliver convincing VR experiences, which usually require high-quality displays and can make processors work really hard – e.g. VR gaming. PCs with insufficient computing power can still deliver VR experiences, but the images may be more pixelated and less convincing. They could even make you feel nauseous due to laggier graphics.

Beginner's Guide to VR Headsets - HTC Vive - ByondVR
Tethered headsets have wires, like the HTC Vive here

You’ll see such headsets with wires extending from them, similar to the image above.

An example of a tethered headset is the HTC Vive. With the Vive, you need to set up two laser-tracking base stations on opposite corners of a room and connect the Rift to a computer before you can start using it. This seems a little troublesome at first, but if you understand the rationale behind the computer connection and set up you’ll see why it’s worth the effort.

Beginner's Guide to VR Headsets - HTC Vive VR Set - ByondVR
Components of a HTC Vive

The sensors around the room enable 360° positional tracking. This means that movement in real life is detected and translated into motion in VR. Thus, you can use all parts of your body to interact with the VR experience – including the position and orientation of your head, which will be picked up by the sensors around the room.

Other tethered headsets include Oculus Rift (180° tracking if you don’t buy add-on sensors) and PlayStation VR, both of which are usually used when sitting down on a swivel chair, instead of letting users move around a room-scale play area.

There are efforts by companies like HTC and Oculus currently to make these PC-based tethered headsets wireless, but the technology is still in its initial stages so more testing and fine-tuning needs to be done before it is released to the mass market.

Here’s a comparison table of the major tethered headsets and their features.

Beginner's Guide to VR Headsets - HTC Vive - ByondVR
Comparison Table for Tethered Headsets

Untethered Headsets

An untethered VR headset is much simpler. It requires less computer power to deliver VR experiences and is accessible to almost anyone with a smartphone. Including you! Such headsets can also support a wide range of content, from gaming, to immersive 360 videos, and even the news.

Beginner's Guide to VR Headsets - Google Daydream VR Set - ByondVR
Components of a Google Daydream

One example of an untethered headset is the newly released Google Daydream View. The Daydream app store offers VR experiences in 4K viewing quality (i.e. very high resolution), with applications like CNN VR for news in 360, the official Youtube VR, VR games, and many video-streaming applications like HBO, Netflix, and Hulu. All these can be viewed on the Google Pixel phone and other Daydream-ready phones announced by Google.

An untethered headset is the most accessible to mass consumers now, in terms of affordability and ease of set-up. And brings with it the allure of a novel medium of content consumption.

However, as untethered headsets only rely on accelerometers inside the phone for position detection, you may experience a little lag when viewing experiences. Your bodily movements in real life also won’t be translated to that in VR – although you can rotate your head to view the space of the 360 environments. That being said, you can either stand up or sit down without affecting your interactions with the VR experience.

This doesn’t necesarily mean that untethered headsets are inferior.

It only means they provide you with a different kind of experience and interaction. If you want to move from space to space within a VR experience, you can use artificial movements in the form of eye gaze, head rotation, or using the headsets’ respective controls to navigate to those places. (Compare this to tethered headsets where you can walk to the location you want using actual bodily movements).

To draw a clearer comparison, let’s use an analogy. If you are viewing a house in VR an untethered headset would only allow you to stand at stationary positions in each room and look around it in 360; a tethered headset will allow you to walk around the space of the room and possibly even “walk through” the virtual doors to arrive at other rooms.

In summary, what untethered headsets lack in interactivity and quality are made up for by their lightweight and convenience to use.

Other untethered headsets (mobile headsets) that are commonly known include the Google Cardboard and GearVR.

Here’s a comparison table of the major untethered headsets and their features.

Beginner's Guide to VR Headsets - Untethered headsets - ByondVR
Comparison Table for Untethered Headsets

As a bonus, mobile VR has a plethora of applications that provide video streaming content, which leading tethered headsets like Rift, Vive, and PSVR have been almost entirely excluded from. If you are new to VR and are looking for a VR headset this Christmas season, why not buy an untethered headset and get introduced to the enchanting world of virtual reality?

Perhaps mobile VR is indeed the way to go for content distribution and consumption in the future of VR.

If you belong to a business/enterprise and would like to tap into this immersive medium to present your product to your customers in an engaging way, you aren’t on your own.

At Byond, we enable anyone to create VR experiences for their audiences through an efficient and intuitive interface, with no coding required. You can then publish your experience across all mobile VR devices to reach your audience and engage them with this new medium of immersive content. Leave us a message today for more details on how we can help you increase your engagement.