Virtual Reality in its current state is an incredibly young form of media, only having come into being as we know it a few years ago. Though the idea of VR and various bits and bobs of hardware for it have existed for decades, the likes of Nintendo's Virtual Boy and old arcade VR games with giant stationary headsets and gun controllers just can't compare to the more hardcore, powerful stuff we have today. Highly immersive experiences can be had for less than the price of a Blu-Ray player these days, with the likes of Google's own Cardboard and a number of cheap VR headsets in all shapes and sizes. The niche that these fill is a necessary one, of course – as a super-cheap introduction to the idea of VR, these do their job. Unfortunately, many people end up with a bad taste in their mouth from these solutions and get put off from VR in general, and that's just plain wrong.
Even with some of the best phones out there, VR on Google Cardboard is a somewhat dodgy experience. A little jury-rigging here, a little app hunting there, and it can be truly magical. For hardcore gamers with expansive old-school libraries, for example, playing something like a PSP emulator with VR functionality enabled can be nothing short of life-changing, with the resolution set correctly and the framerate nice and smooth. Premium content, both in and out of the gaming world, is not only somewhat scarce, it doesn't work quite as well as it could. While a PC application can help Cardboard users get a taste of things made for the Oculus and Vive, the experience doesn't hold a candle to the real deal because of limitations springing from the phone, such as resolution, processing power, screen quality, software optimization and, of course, headset comfort. Cardboard doesn't have a strap, and supplying your own requires serious ingenuity and will inevitably result in a fairly uncomfortable headset.
Samsung's Gear VR is a step up from Cardboard. While still phone-based, it presents a huge number of advantages over Cardboard and its ilk. For starters, the headset is very comfortable, and the phones that it supports may be limited in number, but they all sport good processing packages and quality, high-resolution screens. While you could arguably just use a really great phone with Cardboard or a more comfortable, well-built Cardboard clone, another issue comes up. The Gear VR has its own unified app library, and is Oculus-compatible with some software. While you can't hook it up to your PC and play Steam games, the Gear VR features some serious hits like the mysterious Land's End and the beautiful, action-packed Gun Jack. It's also compatible with apps like Netflix and YouTube, with implementation greatly improved from Cardboard thanks to the use of a much better control scheme, including a game controller that works with most apps by default, as opposed to syncing up a Bluetooth gamepad with a phone inside a Cardboard-compliant headset and either hoping the app you want to play supports it or jury-rigging support through hacks, most of which require root.
The Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive represent the best that VR has to offer right now; the state of the art. Full on PC games with support for VR modes, along with seriously incredible experiences like Google's Tilt Brush mark this type of VR, and make it distinctly different from phone-based VR entirely. Super high resolution screens, powerful head tracking that's smoother and faster than a phone, and entirely new control methods, including specially-built VR controllers with hand tracking. These are a completely different ball game from the likes of Cardboard and Gear VR, and it shows in the experience, and in the price tag. A Cardboard headset can be made for a couple of bucks, whereas decently made Cardboard-compliant headsets with a slot for your phone generally run between $10 and $100, depending on features and build quality. The Gear VR is priced to match its experience at $99, and the Rift and Vive go into "major investment" territory, at $799 for the Vive and $599 for the Oculus. A high-end PC, costing between $600 for a cheap compatible build and $2,500 for a hardcore gaming laptop with all the bits and bobs for both VR and non VR gaming built in. Playstation VR is much like the Oculus and Vive, but based around a Sony Playstation 4 console, and costs as much as $499. Of course, newer and more compelling experiences are coming, even in the mobile space via Google's Daydream system, and it's a shame to think that people who had a bad experience and wrote off VR early on will be missing them.