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Gadgets

How to give the gift of VR

Looking for a unique and special gift? Here's everything you need to know about buying VR gear (and apps) for someone else -- and spending surprisingly little in the process.

What do you get for the person who has everything? How about an entirely different reality -- like, say, the virtual kind?

Don't worry, I'm not about to suggest you spend $600 for an Oculus Rift, $700 for a PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR or $800 for an HTC Vive ($868 at Dicksmith.com.au) -- excellent gifts though they would be. Those PC- and console-powered rigs are fantastic, but you can give the gift of VR for a lot less.

All the recipient needs is a smartphone and a compatible VR headset -- namely something in the Google Cardboard family or a Samsung Gear VR. So we're here to discuss: what kind to get, what extras you might want to include and how to gift a few VR apps to get someone started.

The quick backstory: As Google proved with the release of its Cardboard platform back in 2014, a smartphone can deliver a surprisingly good virtual-reality experience. That's because smartphones have big screens, fast processors and built-in accelerometers that can detect motion.

Slip a phone into a headset equipped with special lenses, fire up any app that can mirror its images side-by-side and presto: You've got VR.

So, if you want to give someone the gift VR, it starts with the headset -- one that works with the phone he or she already owns.

Pick a headset, any headset

Although "Google Cardboard" is the term most frequently associated with smartphone-powered VR, you don't need to buy a Google-branded product -- nor must you settle for cheap, cardboard construction. There are dozens upon dozens of universally compatible VR headsets that make use of the Google Cardboard concept, but with much nicer designs.

Head to Amazon, for example, and search for "VR headset." You'll see tons of results, many of them priced between $15 and 30. (Suddenly this gift option is sounding mighty good, no?) And they're all compatible with Android phones and iPhones alike.

My key recommendation is to choose a model that's either large enough to accommodate eyeglasses or adjustable in both focal length and width. Otherwise, unless the recipient has 20/20 vision, blurry VR awaits. One good bet is this Rokjam headset, which sells for $29.99 and includes a four-way lens adjustment for each eye.

Not to confuse matters, Google's new Daydream View headset may sound like a good option ("It must be like Cardboard, only better!"), but for the moment it's compatible with only one phone: Google's own Pixel. What's more, it's limited to Google's currently small ecosystem of compatible apps, whereas any of the aforementioned headsets will work with the thousands of VR apps available via Google Play.

Bottom line: Give the gift of a generic, inexpensive headset -- unless the recipient is a Samsung Galaxy owner...

The best VR headset for Samsung Galaxy owners

All modern smartphones can do VR, but if your friend or family member owns a Samsung Galaxy (specifically, one of these models), you should definitely go with the Samsung Gear VR. The recently released 2016 edition, which adds the Galaxy S7 to its roster of compatible models, sells for $99.99. But you can pick up last year's Gear VR for as little as $60 -- sometimes even less on daily-deal sites.

What makes the Gear VR better than one of the aforementioned generic headsets (any of which, incidentally, would work just fine with a Galaxy phone)? Simple: Samsung delivers an Oculus-powered ecosystem of apps and games, many of which are vastly superior to what you can find in the Google Play store. Indeed, that ecosystem includes some of the same titles available for the Oculus Rift. The Gear VR itself can't deliver a Rift-caliber experience, but it gets pretty close at times.

Trust me when I say the Gear VR delivers an order of magnitude above generic smartphone VR -- so it's worth a bit more money. Not sure you can trust me? Check out Scott Stein's review.

Get an accessory to go with the headset

bluetooth-gamepad-for-vr.jpg

An inexpensive Bluetooth controller can be a handy extra for the VR headset user.

Jozabova

If you're buying someone a headset, do your friend a solid and get a gamepad controller to go with it. Though not always necessary, it can come in handy for navigating menus -- and some games benefit greatly from (or even outright require) physical buttons to mash.

Some headsets already come with a controller, like the Rokjam pictured above. But there's one consideration: compatibility. Although the headsets themselves all work with Android phones and iPhones, some controllers may not. (The Rokjam's, for example, is Android-only.) Fortunately, you can choose just about any Bluetooth gamepad and it should work just fine with any VR headset -- again, provided the gamepad itself is compatible with the phone in question.

It doesn't have to be fancy, either, because in most games and apps, all you really need is a single select/fire button. Something simple like this $8 model would probably do the trick.

How to add VR apps to your gift

Finally, if you want to complete the package, consider giving some VR love in the form of apps or games. Best bet: a gift card to either iTunes or the Google Play store. Unfortunately, Oculus doesn't currently offer gift cards, so you can't do likewise for Gear VR recipients.

If you're shopping for someone who already owns an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, gift options are available in the form of Steam gift cards. Likewise, you can find Playstation Store gift cards pretty much anywhere.

You can even give the gift of a little homework by sharing some of our recommendations:

Are you planning to give the gift of VR this year? Or would you rather be the recipient?