Virtual reality is the next big thing in technology, with the likes of the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR now readily available to buy in the UK, but which is best? What about mobile VR? What about games and experiences? While there’s a lot to digest when diving into the world of VR, here we aim to make that a little simpler by explaining what virtual reality is, along with an explanation of the best VR headsets due on the market in 2016. We also talk about the benefits of mobile VR, and, of course, the best VR games and experiences available.

Read next: HTC Vive review | PlayStation VR review | Oculus Rift review

Last updated to include information on Nvidia GeForce Now for PC and Mac, which might negate the need for a high-end gaming PC to power VR experiences. 

Podcast discussion: First impressions of the Oculus Rift compared with the HTC Vive

Complete guide to VR: What is Virtual Reality?

The big question of 2016 is “What is virtual reality?” (and “Why should I care?” but we’ll come to that below) and put simply, it could be the ‘next big thing’ and not only for gaming and entertainment. The possibilities for virtual reality stretch far beyond gaming in your front room, with theorised uses everywhere from social networking to education. But before we go any further – what exactly is virtual reality?

Let’s get technical for a second. Simply put, virtual reality is an interactive 3D image connected to a computer (or a smartphone) that users can manipulate to create the illusion of being in a virtual world. Three-dimensional environments coupled with 3D sound and precise head (and sometimes body) tracking effectively tricks your brain into thinking that the virtual world is real, and as such can provide a more immersive and personal experience than simply playing a game or watching a movie on TV.

Depending on the manufacturer, the virtual reality experience can vary greatly. Some manufacturers like Oculus offer only the standard head tracking where you’ll be able to look around the virtual environment, but not physically walk around or interact with it. Some manufacturers like HTC and Valve have taken it a step further, creating a system where your whole body can be tracked, allowing users to walk around their favourite virtual worlds and interact with it thanks to bespoke handheld controllers. It’s worth bearing this in mind – while all virtual reality headsets will offer the ability to view virtual three-dimensional worlds, some offer better levels of immersion than others.

Read next: Best gaming PCs for VR

Complete guide to VR: Which VR headset should you buy?

The biggest decision you’re likely to make in terms of virtual reality is which headset to buy. The headset you choose will have an impact on not only the quality of your virtual experience, but also the number of virtual reality games and experiences available to you. Let’s talk about the ‘big three’ virtual reality headsets on sale at the moment – the £549 Oculus Rift, £759 HTC Vive and £349 PlayStation VR. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are both designed for use with PC, while the PlayStation VR is, as the name suggests, unique to Sony’s PlayStation 4 system, which brings with it both benefits and drawbacks.

Sony has a background in both gaming hardware and software, putting it in a unique place in the market. The company has ample gaming resources from the hugely successful PlayStation line-up, and claims that there are 230 developers working on projects for the PlayStation VR headset. This means that, in theory at least, there should be a wide variety of games and experiences available for the PlayStation VR system, with 50 being released before the end of 2016. It also has a number of platform exclusives, like the hugely popular Robinson: The Journey.

However, while PlayStation VR has a range of VR content available, it may not necessarily run as well as its PC-powered counterparts. The likes of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive run on gaming PCs that are usually a lot more powerful than the PlayStation 4 and can cost upwards of £800-1000, whereas the PS4 costs around £200-350 depending on the variation. While we found the PlayStation VR to offer decent quality graphics when run on a standard PS4, the new PS4 Pro offers enhanced graphics for supported VR experiences so despite being a mid-range headset, users can fork out a little more for a more high-end VR experience.

With that being said, there isn’t exactly a lack of content being developed for the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and other PC-based VR headsets coming to market. There are many big-budget games being released in 2016 with virtual reality support, along with those already on the market that offers the functionality. Games like Elite: Dangerous already boast VR support, allowing VR gamers to ‘sit’ in the cockpit of their spaceships while dog fighting in a virtual universe, but we’ll come to games in a bit more detail below.

Depending on the PC that you have, games have the potential to look a lot better when run on a high-end PC than when compared to its console counterpart, although this depends in part on the game/experience you’re playing.

So if there is a lot of VR content being developed for the PC platform, which is the better choice for you? The Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive? It depends on a number of things, including your budget and space. The Oculus Rift is priced at £549 and thanks to a partnership with Microsoft, works with Windows 10 instinctively, providing a plug ‘n’ play experience that can’t be matched by the HTC Vive. The Oculus Rift provides head tracking, allowing users to look around their virtual environments, but requires a (provided) Xbox One controller to move around and interact.

The £759 HTC Vive, on the other hand, comes with two bespoke handheld controls that can be used in a number of situations along with two base stations that track your position within a physical space and translate this into virtual movement. Put simply, you can physically walk around a virtual environment, reach out and interact with something, providing something as true to life as is possible at the moment. Oculus is also designing bespoke controls for its system, dubbed Oculus Touch, but these are yet to hit the market.

The only issue we can see with a bespoke controller and movement system is game support – it’ll take a while for developers to fully utilise the hardware, with many opting for traditional gamepad controls until that time. Don’t get us wrong though, there are a myriad of games and experiences that use the handheld controllers in a number of weird and wonderful scenarios.  

Read next: Best VR headsets to buy in the UK 2016