Getting Back to the Future—Virtual Reality
Bumpy Rides on the Bleeding Edge
Welcome back to our examination of the gameplay and graphics evolution of games. Today we’re looking at the older attempts at virtual reality machines, and the newer and vastly superior VR machines that are fueling a new niche in the game industry.
If one but looks on the Steam store page, one can find many an offering for Virtual Reality games. In the last few years, the idea of virtual reality has come back in a major way. What was previously viewed as a gimmick, or as only the purview of large, arcade-like machines, is now coming back to the home PC and console. After several failed attempts at doing this in the past, it’s quite easy for those of us who remember the VR craze of the ’90s to dismiss any new ventures into this technological realm. Thankfully, it seems we have finally come far enough along for VR to become not only playable but enjoyable. Since this article is more about VR systems than it is about games, the format will change slightly to reflect that, as we first move back in time to relive the doomed VR systems of the past, and then into the future, where it seems that VR has finally found its place.
In previous attempts to create a true virtual reality experience, developers had a lot of hurdles to overcome, not the least of which was prohibitive cost. In the ’90s, we didn’t have the kind of graphic processing power that we now enjoy. The most popular games were only 16-bit, or slightly higher resolution, arcade cabinet titles. Stereoscopic 3-D did exist and was used in movies but having a video game experience that entirely relied on it had yet to be fully realized. The technology to track head motion, a key component of a VR experience, was very new and unwieldy, and very few games were ever made with VR in mind since any VR capable machine was quite expensive for a home user and developers wanted games to appeal to a larger audience. Knowing all this in hindsight, the old VR machines were doomed to fail commercially.
It took a while for the market to come back around to the idea of home VR systems. There had existed VR arcade machines starting in the early 2000s, but creating new, home-sized technology had not yet been conceptualized. The Oculus Rift was the first project to attempt to set the mold for new VR home tech, and it was massively successful—successful enough that Facebook (now Meta) bought out the company and rebranded it completely). What people had assumed was a dead gimmick found new life thanks to some ambitious developers and a lot of backer money. Now, we’re in a phase of other platform developers trying to break into this untapped market for virtual reality games and experiences. With all that in mind, let’s start with one of the most infamous older products.
Virtual Boy (Nintendo, 1995)
What was then a good idea executed terribly is now a somewhat infamous legend. Nintendo’s early attempt at a virtual-reality platform manifested in the Virtual Boy, a presumably portable headset that worked as a stand-alone machine, not unlike its already popular Game Boy (and hey, even using the same naming scheme), but for your face. The Virtual Boy came in between the Super Nintendo and the Nintendo 64 and boasted a fully three-dimensional virtual display [ 1 ]. Unfortunately, this is about where its VR capabilities ended. The Virtual Boy had a slew of problems that caused it to become a commercial flop, and its production was canceled within a year.
To really look into why it didn’t work, we have to consider the idea of virtual reality and what that means for the player. Generally speaking, a VR system should have head tracking, allowing the player to move their head in real life, and have the system respond to this movement, to create a feeling of being in another world. The Virtual Boy did not have this capability, which limited its appeal significantly. It also didn’t have any sort of hand tracking, which is typically seen alongside head tracking to complete the virtual reality experience. Instead, the Virtual Boy had a standard video game controller. While this interface was innovative for its time, having two d-pads and even shoulder buttons, as well as the system power switch, it really breaks the immersion needed for a true virtual reality experience.
The headset presented its own problems. Firstly, it was not a “portable system” in the classic Game Boy sense. You could, theoretically, take it anywhere, since it had a battery pack, but the headset rested on a stand, meaning you needed a flat surface to play it on. There was no strap or any other way to keep it on your head. When you found a flat surface that the headset could rest on and that you could comfortably fit your face (which, believe me, won’t be for long), you had to keep your head in the headset on your own, like you were sitting for an eye exam. The stereoscopic 3-D effect was decent, but the system’s only colors were red and black. Apart from causing lots of eye strain and headaches (and there was a warning on the box to this effect), this color scheme excluded anyone who was red/green colorblind.
So, how about the games? Well, if we’re taking into account the titles that actually had a virtual reality feel to them, there were only two. First, Teleroboxer [ 2 ]. You piloted a fighting mecha from first-person perspective, using the two D-pads to individually control the arms of your robot. It played a bit like a cross between Punch-Out! and Rock-Em-Sock-Em Robots, with mecha fists coming at you head on. Second, Red Alarm [ 3 ]. This game was a flight simulator of sorts. You piloted a wire-framed red star ship through wire-framed environments and blasted away wire-frame enemies out of the skies. It had both a first person and third-person perspective for the ship, but if you wanted a virtual reality experience (isn’t that the point?) then obviously you’d want to play in the first person. Red Alarm suffered, however, from having everything designed as a wireframe on top of being colored only red and black, making it difficult to tell what was an obstacle and what could be flown through. None of the other officially released Virtual Boy titles had a first-person view—a huge oversight for a system that had “Virtual” in its name.
I actually played a few games on Virtual Boy back in the ’90s, including Teleroboxer, Red Alarm, Mario Tennis [ 4 ] (which was shipped with the system), and Vertical Force [ 5 ]. Playing the Virtual Boy for any extended period of time strained my eyes, and often caused my neck to become sore as I struggled to keep my head level with the stand-mounted goggles. While I could enjoy the three-dimensional effects offered by the system, its color scheme and uninteresting titles ultimately turned me away. With the Virtual Boy being released just one year before the N64 and the PlayStation, there wasn’t much of a wait for the next big console. That, compiled with its many technical failings, doomed the Virtual Boy to failure. The system was intended to eventually feature multiplayer options, having a link cable port in the basic headset, but this attachment never came out due to the system’s cancellation. There was speculation that Gunpei Yokoi, the mind at Nintendo behind the Virtual Boy, had retired due to its commercial failure, but Nintendo has denied this, stating that the two events were just coincidental [ 6 ].
The lessons learned from Virtual Boy are exclusively about what not to do when creating a VR system. Firstly, a “portable” VR system that is not really portable should not be billed as such, nor it is particularly a good idea to make a VR system portable when any such system would require a safe interior space for ideal operation. The headset’s lack of tracking is also a huge issue since it eliminates an entire aspect of the ideal VR experience. Any device marketed as VR should not be a glorified 3-D system, and it should probably have more than two colors. Lastly, trying to launch a new system less than a year before launching the next iteration of your main system is shooting yourself in the foot. The Virtual Boy was a master class in terrible execution in all of its aspects.
VFX-1 (Forte Technologies, 1995)
Another less well-known but far more competent attempt at virtual reality in the ’90s is the VFX-1 by Forte Technologies [ 7 ]. This headset was meant to be hooked up to a personal computer and featured support for several PC games. If you’ve not heard of the VFX-1 I wouldn’t blame you; the VR craze of the ’90s saw many emerging systems and hardware that ultimately ended up nowhere, even the good ones. The VFX-1’s competent showing in the realm of virtual reality should have garnered it more of a name, but it, unfortunately, sank with the rest of the old VR systems.
The VFX-1’s headset had many of the expected staples of a virtual reality experience. It tracked motion of the wearer’s head on three axes, using a rather clever method of calibrating to the earth’s own magnetic field. This meant that any time there was a significant location change, the headset would require recalibration, but this was hardly an issue. The system also came with a hand controller, dubbed the Cyberpuck, which also offered tracking for pitch and roll, and could function as a mouse.
While there were not many games that supported the virtual reality experience offered by the VFX-1, one could still play most PC game titles with it, granting some level of deeper immersion in those games with a first-person perspective, such as the popular Wolfenstein. The headset functioned as a glorified 2-D display, while the Cyberpuck controlled motion. As advanced as this setup was, the VFX-1 only had 45 degrees of vision, meaning it could not fully encompass the wearer’s field of view. It was also limited by its cable attachments to the PC, with its main cable being only eight feet long. Still, with a sticker price of roughly $600 USD, the VFX-1 was a bargain virtual reality system for its time, compared to other systems of similar quality costing upwards of $1,000 USD [ 8 ]. While its price couldn’t be beaten, playing games on PC with full stereoscopic 3-D required other high-end components in the computer itself.
The VFX-1 also came packaged with a CD-ROM that contained several compatible games, such as Descent, Doom, and, uh America Online. Because in the ’90s there was no escape from America Online disks. Anyway, while these games were compatible, they did not offer native support for the VFX-1, so each one required its own set of special drivers to enable the VR features, like head tracking. For those not familiar, Doom did not have pitch, meaning no looking up or down, nor did it have support for 3-D graphics, but it could still use the headset for turning. Later games, like Quake, were able to take full advantage of the stereoscopic 3-D effects, as well as pitch tracking from the headset. Descent, being a first-person flight sim, meshed seamlessly with the VFX-1 technology, creating a strong immersive experience.
While everything so far seems to be in the VFX-1’s favor, it had its own issues. As mentioned, the requirement of special drivers for several games made just setting up to play a chore. While its display was impressive, it suffered from input lag, making playing any first-person game unfortunately more difficult to play. And, even at its lower comparative price, its cost was still prohibitive. This led to the VFX-1 being a rather niche product.
I couldn’t personally get my hands on a VFX-1 to give it a try, though I doubt that I could have gotten it to run, considering it requires an ISA slot—a technology that is no longer supported or featured in modern PCs. By other user accounts, it can work, though it still has the input lag problems, and can be a bit disorienting at first. Even with its issues, the VFX-1 is probably the best example of a somewhat affordable and viable virtual reality system of the ’90s.
The VFX-1 did a lot of things right. It had a unique way to calibrate its head tracking system that was ahead of its time, as well as a great handheld controller in the Cyberpuck, and these two combined created the desired VR experience of “being in” the game, moving your body to move around the game world. Its limits for the time, requiring good PC hardware to run, were almost made up by its low price point, but as noted, $600 USD is still a lot of money, even by modern standards. Despite it being a good VR system, the VFX-1 suffered from the market saturation of other bad and even more expensive VR systems, and its marketing was unable to really get beyond the bad taste in consumer’s mouths.
Now, we move onto modern times.
Oculus Rift (Oculus VR, 2016)
One of the most hyped virtual reality systems to date, the Oculus Rift (now known as the Meta Rift) was first conceptualized in 2012. After a successful Kickstarter [ 9 ] campaign raising 2.5 million USD, a purchase by Facebook (now Meta), and several prototype headsets, the Oculus Rift finally hit retail shelves and e-shops in 2016. With four years of testing and development, we are now able to find out if the Rift can live up to its hype [ 10 ].
The first thing the Oculus Rift has going for it is an easy setup, which is more expected in the modern times of plug-and-play hardware. This advanced system comes with a three-point sensor setup, called Constellation, for your room. These are used to track the position of the headset via infrared sensors. These sensors pick up the signals from the infrared LEDs on the headset, which allow them to track its position with incredible accuracy and almost zero latency. Obviously, this is quite impressive and a huge leap forward in tracking head motions. The second part of the system is the hand controllers, called Oculus Touch. These paired hand controllers each have an analog stick, three buttons, and two triggers, and are also tracked by the Constellation system, which allows for hand motions in supported games. The headset itself comes with built-in headphones, and the dual eye screens have a mechanical adjustment for distance. It also has a spring-loaded head strap, allowing the user to simply tug the strap to put on or remove it. The display runs at a nice 90-hertz and has excellent resolution.
Oculus also comes with its own user interface, called Oculus Home. This interface looks like a display screen splashed over a virtual reality loft. From this menu, the user can launch their VR games and applications, see which of their friends are currently playing, and purchase more virtual reality content. In its first inception, Oculus Home was just a space for menus when the Oculus Rift wasn’t running any other content, but recent updates have turned Oculus Home into a “home,” or actual virtual reality living space, in addition to its menu functions. The user can customize this living space to an extent to make their Oculus Home their own. It’s an interesting direction to take, considering the popularity of personalized virtual spaces over the years.
The games library for Oculus Rift is quite impressive, with 48 total titles that feature support for some form of VR locomotion via the headset or handheld controllers. Popular games such as Fallout 4, Minecraft, Skyrim, and good old Quake (with a mod) are among these many titles. Skyrim in particular takes advantage of both head and hand tracking, allowing the player to control their hands individually for spells and weapons, as one would on the traditional mouse and keyboard setup. There is even a mod to allow for voice recognition on the VR headset, so you can Fus Ro Dah with your own words. It’s honestly quite impressive that one system can do so much to immerse the player into the game world.
The Oculus Rift has greatly improved on the old style of virtual reality headsets. Compared to the Virtual Boy or VFX-1, the headset is quite mobile thanks to its infrared tracking and longer cord. It also has superior hand controls, and a nice default interface, whereas the old systems just didn’t have one. As mentioned, it also improves on setup time, at least compared to the VFX-1, taking only a few minutes to install and place the Constellation sensors. When comparing future virtual reality devices, the Oculus Rift is likely to be the new basis for judgment.
I had wanted to test out the Oculus Rift when it came out, and to that effect I drove more than 50 miles to a store location that didn’t exist. Apparently, the Oculus demo locator contains out-of-date information on it, to my lasting frustration and puzzlement. The Rift truly seems like an amazing product, and one would think the company would want to have people testing it out, since its official release was so recent, which makes an oversight on this scale rather odd. Regardless, the Oculus Rift also had an incredible price point, currently retailing at $349 USD. If you have an inclination and want to try the Rift, you can’t, of course; it’s since been discontinued. However, its successors, the Meta Quest, Meta Quest 2, and the Meta Quest Pro are all available in different quantities today.
HTC Vive (HTC & Valve, 2016)
The first (and possibly only) direct competitor to the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive comes to us from HTC and the Valve Corporation. That is the same Valve that owns Steam, the popular, pseudo-monopolistic online game store. The Vive was first announced to the world in March of 2015, while the Oculus Rift was still in its development stage, and released in April 2016, just over a year later, and just after the Rift. The Rift being the first does not necessarily make it the best. The question is, could the Vive keep up with the Rift?
The basic systems of the Vive were similar to the Rift. The headset is tracked by external sensors, which is called the Lighthouse tracking system. It consists of two black boxes that can create a 360-degree virtual space in up to a 15-by-15-foot area. This system also uses infrared tracking, but in reverse from the Rift, with the two bases emitting infrared pulses that are picked up by the headset and controllers. The headset has slightly higher resolution than the Rift at 1080×1200 and boasts a 110-degree field of view. What the Vive headset had over the Rift was the inclusion of a front-facing safety camera that alerts the user when they are coming too close to a real-world obstacle. The headset is also roomier, allowing for users who wear glasses to keep them on when using the Vive, a big step forward in quality-of-life for the visually impaired. One thing the Vive headset skips on, however, is the built-in headphones. This can be both good and bad, depending on who you ask. The Vive’s controllers are different, being a pistol-grip shape with trackpads for the thumbs, buttons on the grips, and dual-stage triggers.
As far as the software of the Vive goes, the basic home user interface is not unlike that of the Rift. The Vive uses SteamVR, the software developed by Valve. It features a 3-D dashboard that contains all the relevant information you’d expect from Steam proper: the store, your games, applications, friends list, and so on. This dashboard is presented in a virtual reality space that is empty by default but can be customized to have different backgrounds like space or a valley. In May 2017, Steam VR also introduced its own “home” environment, titled simply Steam VR Home [ 11 ]. It, too, is a somewhat fully customizable virtual space, where the user can access the menus, but also play around a little in their own virtual “home.” It’s hard to see this as anything more than a game of catch-up by Valve, but it is nonetheless a good move on their part.
When it comes to the game library, it would appear, at first, that the Vive has won this category handily with roughly 107 total game titles, though some of these are still in development. While that is an impressive number of games, it speaks nothing to their quality, and indeed there could quite easily be some uninspired shovelware among that number. We do see some of the higher end games here, like Elite Dangerous, Fallout 4, and L.A. Noir: The VR Case Files, so it can be said for certain that not all of these titles are bad. Regardless of that, when you consider that almost all games compatible with the HTC Vive can also be played on the Oculus Rift, this extensive list quickly loses its charm. On top of this, there are several Oculus Rift only games, such as Chronos and Lucky’s Tale. You can download a third-party software called ReVive, which allows you to play some of the Oculus exclusive titles, but it’s not as reliable as just owning an Oculus Rift.
I, unfortunately, was not able to locate a demo location for a Vive, due to my, relatively speaking, remote area of residence. However, by all accounts that I could find, the Vive was a solid competitor to the Rift, though its platform does showcase some classic console wars symptoms of “keeping up with the Joneses.” There were some user complaints of Steam VR crashing often, requiring frequent reboots or re-installations just to get it working again. Aside from this odd problem, several users prefer the feeling of the Rift’s dual controllers to the Vive’s, finding them more comfortable and easier to control games with, owing to the analog sticks on the Rift’s controllers, versus the track pads on the Vive’s. One thing solidly in Vive’s favor was its price, coming in at $299 USD, making it slightly more affordable (though there are more expensive options). Where the Vive did innovate its more ergonomic headset design, and its interesting reversal of the headset tracking system. It’s hard to say whether or not this system is better than the Rift’s, but since the headset is receiving signal instead of sending it should, theoretically, translate to slightly more precise head tracking. As mentioned, the Vive doesn’t have built-in headphones, so if you prefer to use your own, the Vive has a slight edge here, though I’d say it’s a stretch to call this an innovation. Indeed, outside of these differences, the Vive isn’t trying to innovate much in terms of VR, instead keeping most things in line with the Oculus Rift and making very slight improvements. This is not necessarily bad, as small steps are important, but I imagine it will be some time before we see the next big leap in VR technology.
Oculus Go, Oculus Rift S, Oculus Quest 1 & 2 (2018, 2019, & 2020)
With the success of the Rift, the team at Oculus had what they needed to continue their line of products. The first big innovation here was with the Oculus Go [ 12 ], which no longer required the user to be tethered to a physical cord. Naturally, more freedom of movement means a more immersive VR experience, so being able to ditch the cord and have greater maneuverability is a plus. Unfortunately, the Go falls a bit short in the freedom of movement department, not having full motion tracking like the Rift. Where it is better than the Rift is that it is dedicated hardware, not requiring an external computer or smart phone to function. The Rift itself would get an update in the form of the Rift S [ 13 ], but a new product would be released alongside it, the Oculus Quest [ 14 ].
The Rift S is a slightly improved version of the original. It still has its tether to a computer, but that isn’t necessarily bad, as that technology is tried and true by this point in time. This requirement also allows it to play higher-end games, in contrast to the Quest, which cannot handle them due to its lower-end components. The real big improvement in the Rift S is the Insight system, which has the motion tracking built into the headset itself, rather than set up around the room. Apart from having a faster set-up time and less to pack away, having the tracking system directly connected to the headset would, generally, make it faster and more accurate. The Quest also has the Insight system, but the Rift S has five tracking cameras to the Quest’s four, again edging out its VR sibling in terms of ability, though just barely according to first-hand accounts of how both systems operate. The Quest does bring its own upsides, though. Firstly, being untethered and more advanced than the Go with full-motion tracking, brings the Quest more in line with the idea of full free motion VR. While the Quest is slightly less powerful than the Rift S, this drop in power doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer in terms of games. Both systems have the same style of controller, which is a slightly improved version of the original Rift controllers. For its untethered system, the Quest’s battery only lasts about 2.5 hours, which is more than enough time for most of its popular games. In November 2019, the Oculus Link system was introduced in Beta form for the Quest. The Link system was designed to allow the user to tether the Quest to a PC to play PC only VR games. Unfortunately, the old Quest suffered from a lack of good cable options, in both compatibility and required length for freedom of movement.
This brings us to the Quest 2 [ 15 ][ 16 ]. The Quest 2 is an improved version of the original. It has a higher resolution screen, more supported refresh rates, more RAM, bigger data storage, a more advanced chipset, slightly reduced weight and attempts at increasing overall comfort with more flexible head straps. The Quest 2 also benefits from its game library being more optimized thanks to the original Quest’s lifespan. The battery life is still limited to about 2.5 hours, but considering the upgrade in hardware, not downgrading in battery life in quite impressive. The Quest 2 also comes with an official Link cable to be used with the Link system, for an additional cost. This cable solves the issues of the earlier Link system not having that support. Today, the Quest 2 is actually not the “cutting edge” VR headset model from Facebook/Meta—that would be The Quest Pro, a “prosumer” model that is perhaps one iteration more advanced than the Quest 2 but is vastly more expensive. For price versus performance, stick to the Quest 2 for now. If you’re looking for an alternative, the Valve Index is the Quest 2’s main competitor.
There and Back Again
When reflecting on both the past and present of virtual reality, it’s rather amazing to think that after the craze and floundering of VR in the ’90s that we would come back to VR with such a strong showing today. The earliest attempts at VR, even the good ones, left quite the sour taste in the mouths of consumers, and it seemed, at least to me, that virtual reality wouldn’t come back for quite a long time—though apparently that time was shorter than I expected. With the emerging and ever-improving technologies of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and others I didn’t cover like PlayStation VR, we are seeing the rebirth of virtual reality. The medium is finally finding some respect among its traditional platform peers. If all goes well—and I hope it does—these technologies will continue to improve and bring us even more elegant and immersive experiences in the future.
- “The Nintendo Virtual Boy. As is evident both from the design conceits and this screenshot from Mario Clash … mistakes were made.” Source: Mario Clash. Nintendo Virtual Boy. Nintendo, 1995. and Nintendo Official Site: Consoles, Games, News, and More. web.archive.org/web/20230123215810/https://www.nintendo.com.
- “While far less famous, the VFX1 was far more competent than its contemporaries. Sadly, this did not save it.” Source: Wikipedia contributors. “VFX1 Headgear.” Wikipedia, 2 Sept. 2022, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VFX1_Headgear.
- “Before being bought out by Facebook (now Meta), the Oculus Rift and its successors was—and still is—one of the most accessible VR platforms to date.” Source: Amazon.com: Oculus Rift + Touch Virtual Reality System : Everything Else. www.amazon.com/Oculus-Touch-Virtual-Reality-System-pc/dp/B073X8N1YW.
- “Once thought to be a direct competitor to the Rift, the HTC Vive is often considered the Betamax to the Rift’s VHS – probably a better platform, but with only a fraction of the adoption.” Source: “HTC Vive Review: Truly Immersive VR Comes at a Cost.” Endgadget, 5 Apr. 2016, www.engadget.com/2016-04-05-htc-vive-review.html.
- “Today, the Meta line of VR headsets may no longer be known as Oculus, but they are still considered the industry leader in terms of accessibility and price.” Source: Heaney, David. “Oculus Headsets Lineup Explained: What’s the Difference Between Rift S, Quest, and Go?” UploadVR, 19 Aug. 2020, uploadvr.com/oculus-go-vs-rift-vs-quest.
A man of many talents, Clayton has worn several hats. His work focuses on visual mediums like film and gaming. A practiced martial artist and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University with a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design & New Media, he brings both tactile experience and academic credentials as measures of his considerable expertise. Clayton is both Manager of Steam-Funk’s core writing staff and part of the firm’s senior creative team, helping craft both The Living Multiverse and firm policy.
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