To understand just how popular VR is going to be in 2021, you need to absorb this little fact:
It’s mid January 2021, and the Oculus Quest 2 has been out for around seven weeks. In that time, it has surpassed the original Quest’s all-time peak and monthly active users! The original Quest has been out for almost two years.
Why is There a VR Boom?
In short: Video cards.
A couple years back, 1080’s were a rarity because of Bitcoin farmers. Hardware got scarce. This was bad for VR, which was already pushing the limits of what that generation of graphics cards could do.
Enter the 20xx series of cards. Cheaper and better than the 10xx series, people waited to adopt them. Some felt the 30% performance boost wasn’t worth the money, while others were waiting for the 1080 to drop in price… which it didn’t. Bitcoin farms stuck with that hardware, keeping the price artificially high.
Though the launch of the 30xx series of cards was anything but smooth, people are now starting to get their hands on them. For most games, they offer around a 40% VR performance increase under identical conditions when compared to their 20xx counterparts.
But even the 2070’s can offer over 125 FPS on Halflife Alyx with no synthetic frames needed. Over 95 FPS on Skyrim VR. Over 85 FPS on Obduction.
It’s fair to say that the 3070 and above will dominate most of the VR games Steam has to offer. Not to mention rendering crowded virtual chat rooms flawlessly.
In short: A flood of high quality graphics cards is hitting the market as we speak, and their VR performance is unlike anything the world has ever seen.
With availability comes opportunity. It explains the enthusiastic adoption of VR products across the board in the past couple of months. And it explains the surge of VR game development we’re seeing as well.
The VR Games Steam is Pushing in Early 2021
To give you some ideas what games these headsets might suit, because without context a more niche product might be selected over a good general VR headset, here are some examples of popular VR games Steam is getting behind in early 2021. These are typical results when paired with the latest Vive and a high end i7 processor. They’re what we’ll consider typical use cases:
Beat Saber: Low demand arcade simulation. Mostly shapes flying at you and particle effects, just about any modern card supporting VR will handle this one.
Half-Life: Alyx: Low to medium demand story rich FPS. 2020 VR game of the year. At high settings, it will scare your pants off… at excellent framerates on both 20xx and 30xx cards.
BONEWORKS: Medium demand physics sandbox adventure. Single player won’t tax a modern card much, but complex sandbox physics will crush 10xx series cards.
Project Cars 2: Medium to high demand driving simulation. The insane level of detail and immersion can tank framerates of the 10xx series cards. 20xx or better for this one.
VRChat: Variable demand avatar chat room. In a simple room with simple avatars, easily handled. In a detailed, object rich room with a crowd of complex avatars… watch out.
These are the kinds of games that will dominate the early 2021 market. Currently there’s nothing (decently optimised, at least) that is going to challenge a 3070/80/90 in the VR world, as long as the rest of the system is up to spec (good i7+, 16 gig+ RAM, solid state drive, etc.). But that may change by the end of the year.
With all that in mind, it’s time to explore the best VR headset – 2021 edition.
Best VR Headset 2021 – Currently Available
If you want bang for the buck and you want it now, look no further than the Oculus Quest 2.
At $399 or £299, the sheer value of this headset is incomparable. Yes, the timing of its release was excellent, ready for a holiday season when an unprecedented number of people were spending time at home. But it also performs like a $750 headset from just a few months ago.
The Snapdragon XR2 chip was a great choice. This headset does room-scale VR. It doesn’t require a PC or cables for simpler apps. The VR is upper body only (no pelvis or leg sensors), but for most games that’s fine. The ‘official’ cable to hook it up to your PC is expensive, but you can get the Vokoo link cable for less than half the price.
Don’t like Facebook? Well, it’s required for registration and use, because that’s who owns Oculus. So if you have objections, check out our suggestion just below for the best VR headset 2021 – coming soon (Spoiler: It’s shaping up to be even better than the Quest 2…).
Paired with the right video card, this will chew up all of the VR games Steam has on offer. Stand alone, it can tackle an impressive library of games. As a stand alone unit, it has 64GB of storage. For an extra $100 (or an extra £100 in real money), you can get the 256GB version instead.
Best VR Headset 2021 – Coming Soon
As with any future product, some of this is educated speculation. We won’t know the true value until all the specs are official and the MSRP is announced. But the details that have been leaked speak to the market that is being targeted, so we can make certain assumptions.
And based on these assumptions, the HTC Next Gen is squaring up to be the Quest 2’s slightly superior rival. Due for a 2021 release, we were hoping to see a bit more at this year’s virtual CES. But that ends today sadly, with no hint of more details. So here’s what we know so far.
Like it’s main rival, HTC is running the Snapdragon XR2 chipset. We know this from the Q1 2020 spoiler and subsequent leaks before the Q4 FCC filing. This looks to be HTC’s 2021 ‘all in two’ solution theory. We know that one of their prototypes involved pairing a lightweight set of VR glasses with another object to do the processing.
We also know from an interview with HTC VIVE EMEA General Manager Graham Wheeler that one of the new headsets can pair with a 5G smartphone. That combination directly competes with the Quest 2’s autonomous mode. The only question is, will it also be able to hook up to a PC and run the VR games Steam has to offer? Since his next comments were about how far PC graphic cards have come, it seems at least somewhat likely.
But we won’t know if the ‘lightweight glasses’ model is a completely different product from a heavier, more powerful full room solution. Remember HTC has plenty of full body tech, which Oculus isn’t using! If they come out with a similar product to the Quest 2 at a similar price point, but include lower extremity tracking and superior hand tracking… watch out.
This is the most promising product that has been announced, and the one that just might be worth waiting for. Particularly if it is a whole body tracking experience. A similar full body setup, like the Valve Index, runs in excess of a thousand bucks with all the sensors and light towers included. If HTC brings this price point down by a few hundred dollars, it will be the best VR headset 2021 sees, with room to spare.