Every few years, a new fad technological fad enters the gaming scene. Often hailed as “the future of gaming,” these fads almost always disappear after a few years and many misguided attempts to capitalise on them. Within my gaming lifetime, we’ve seen the rise and fall of 3D gaming, 4K, a crazy overabundance of plastic instruments and more than a few attempts to make motion control relevant. Sometimes these have worked and stuck in the gaming sphere, as is the case with 4K’s slow rise, but often these elements have quickly fallen out of fashion and led us straight back to what we know and love; a screen and a controller.
This year has been no exception. Pretty early on we knew that Virtual Reality gaming would be the hot topic of the year, and it didn’t disappoint, with the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Playstation VR, Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard being some of the best knows names in the current VR world. To those unfamiliar with the concept, VR experiences are designed to immerse you in a world using a combination of head-tracking and separate images for each eye. It’s kinda an evolution of the 3D concept with the addition of the ability to look around, rather than just as a faux-3d image.
Whilst in theory it sounds like a fabulous idea, it hasn’t come without its own issues and limitations. First and foremost, the price of a VR setup is a huge limiting factor, as most people aren’t willing to fork out between £400-£800 for a headset; hence why it’s often thought of as only relevant to tech-bloggers. Aside from that, you also need a computer to actually hook it up to, and at the moment VR requires a pretty damn beefy machine to run to any satisfactory level. Secondly, versions which create a room-scale environment, incorporating motion, often require a huge amount of space. Thirdly, many have experienced motion sickness whilst playing, which narrows the market even more.
As you can tell, at the minute full PC VR isn’t exactly an option for most of us; but we do have options. Google’s Cardboard design, and competitors such as the Gear VR have started to appear, offering a more cost effective solution. Forgoing a built-in screen, some headsets are designed to provide a cost—effective solution for VR on the go using mobile phones. However, these are still often pricey, especially if you want actual buttons.
One solution could be the Merge VR; which was kindly sent to us for testing. Designed to be a stylish, cost effective VR solution, does it measure up to its competitors?
The first thing to mention about the Merge VR goggles is the colour. They come in a bright purple colour with silver and black detailing, an adjustable headstrap and adjustment knobs and buttons. Constructed from a strong, yet flexible foam, it also has a removable piece at the front to allow the inserted phone’s camera to see in front of the headset. Inside the headset are the important bits; the lenses, which help with modifying the picture to more accurately portray a world and trick the eyes. The two lenses are mounted and attached to the top buttons and adjustment knobs, which can be used to move them towards and away from the centre horizontally, to aim with adjusting and finding a good focus. Your phone slips into the slit at the front of the device, and is well padded on all sides. The slot is quite wide, but holds all phones I’ve tried in it well with minimal slippage.
Whilst the headset certainly looks the part, not everything is perfect. The foam does allow a great deal of flexibility, but I’m unsure how long it will feasibly last, as it doesn’t exactly reek of quality. I haven’t been able to properly damage it yet, but after some use certain parts are looking a little wrinkled. The adjustment knobs do their jobs, but the lens pieces do seem to move around quite a bit, and don’t always stay aligned or upright during adjustment and play. It’s also quite easy to press the top buttons whilst adjusting, which makes it all even trickier.
The positive side of the foam construction however is the comfort factor; MergeVR does feel very comfortable in use, even after extended sessions. Whilst it isn’t the lightest thing to wear (after all, it will have a phone inside it) it was more often than not my eyes which forced me to take it off rather than any comfort or weight issues. The provided strap is also very supportive and big enough even for the big-headed amongst us. Another thing to note is the fact that it doesn’t retain moisture, therefore it doesn’t get “sweaty” like you might imagine a foam headset would. It is also surprisingly cool to wear; so much so that you can often forget you’re wearing it.
Whilst the headset is pretty much tech-free, you do have one control solution; the buttons at the top. These control small levers which touch the left and right portions of the phone screen during play. Whilst I mentioned that these can be awkward when adjusting the headset, during use they work incredibly well and seem neither too sensitive nor too finicky.
One feature that sets this apart from other, cheaper models is the hole for the phone camera, allowing easy use for AR. Whilst not commonly used, it’s a feature which I’d like to see capitalised on more, and with this functionality the Merge leaves itself open for this experimentation.
During testing I focused on a few particular apps; Fantasy VR, Wizard Academy, Cardboard Crash, Fulldive, Youtube 360 and Lamper VR: Firefly Rescue (which has been optimised for MergeVR.) I enjoyed playing the games, with the headset remaining firmly on my head throughout the testing comfortably. Fantasy VR was comfortably my favourite game; immersing me well in a Legend of Zelda-style game world; with Lamper VR coming a close second. It is clear that the adjustments made to Lamper make it well-suited to this particular headset, with the overall look being much clearer that the other games. The headset is arguably better suited to video, as occasionally your arms can get tired from holding on to the buttons on the top for too long. Regardless there are no distinct issues to be found with using the headset, especially once it has been calibrated through the Google Cardboard app.
Whilst the clarity and depth of the images will be very much linked to your actual phone and settings, I did notice some limited blur whilst looking through the lenses; though it was distinctly less than seen in other, cheaper models.
Having not used VR much until receiving this headset, I was unsure at how much of a difference it would actually make. Whilst some experiences aren’t improved at all by the inclusion of gimmicky VR, others are absolutely made by it. Cardboard Crash; a free game about the ethics of auto-driving cars, particularly highlighted to me how affecting and interesting it can be, and as such I consider myself a convert; BUT is the Merge the right choice of headset?
It’s a difficult call to make; on one hand, the headset is incredibly comfy, relatively light and beautifully stylish, whilst also creating a convincing VR effect. On the other, the focusing mechanism is finicky and the overall build quality of the lens casing leaves some to be desired. Whilst I can’t currently find a UK price, on their own website Merge sells the headset for $59.99, which equates to around £50. Whilst this comes in well under the Daydream and Gear VR, it doesn’t include an outside controller or any in-built digital tech, and it will always be compared to the bog-standard $15 google cardboard in this respect. Whilst the price does seem pretty steep, for straight-up comfort you won’t find better; and that’s something that you won’t hear anyone say about the Cardboard…
In conclusion, if you’re looking for a very comfy entry-to-mid priced VR solution with some well-thought-out controls, I would definitely recommend looking at the MergeVR.