Before VR Can Be Game-Changing, It Has to Be Comfortable
The best way to make VR headsets comfortable is also the most complicated.
How many products do you own that physically mark you for using them? If I wear my smartwatch too tight I’ll end the day with a huge circular imprint on my wrist from the Apple Watch’s bulbous sensor. Annoying, but not exactly embarrassing. If I wear a virtual reality headset for too long, or too tightly to keep it from sliding around my face, I’ll have an imprint on my face for an hour after using it. A bit more of a visible signal of my burgeoning hobby — and absolutely a worse one.
These sorts of compromises are par for the course for wearable tech, but feel especially egregious on VR hardware because it's more fiddly in its setup and what it demands from you physically to get it to work. A head-mounted display can obscure your vision, heat up your face, and strain your neck if it's particularly heavy, all at the same time. That is, perhaps not unsurprisingly, a pretty uncomfortable combination.
Of course, VR hardware has dramatically improved in the last few decades from its clunky, experimental beginnings, but those larger fit and finish problems still exist. Companies have tried different ways to design headsets for a range of head and face shapes as the pitch for using them as general-use computers becomes more accepted. But after years of lightweight, compact, and now even custom headsets, the simplest solution seems like the one with the most moving parts: modularity.
The appeal of the custom headset is the idea that technically, a product made for you will offer the best experience. Bigscreen VR, which is probably best known for its virtual reality app for co-watching licensed 3D films and anything you can stream from your computer, surprisingly entered the hardware game in February with the Bigscreen Beyond. The Bigscreen headset is super lightweight, about as small as a pair of swimming goggles, and most importantly, custom-molded to each owner's face.
How does Bigscreen do this? Using an iPhone app (running on an iPhone XR and up) the company is able to create a depth scan of your face and 3D-print a foam cushion that should offer a bespoke fit. Bigscreen focused on making the best possible visual experience with its headset, so while the cushion should remove the possibility of light leaking in, the real star is the Beyond’s twin Micro OLED displays. The company is promising up to a 90Hz refresh rate and a 5,120 x 2,560 resolution, far greater visual fidelity than what you’d find on most VR headsets — and working in the Beyond’s favor is that its compatible with PC VR only, so you won’t have to deal with the limited graphical performance of standalone VR devices.
But does a custom-molded headset even make sense? Bigscreen has designed the Beyond’s foam cushions with magnetic attachments, so if you wanted to share your headset with someone else, all they would have to do is get their own face scan done. But when you take into account Bigscreen’s estimate that verifying scans and printing cushions is a weeks- or even months-long affair, is that really convenient? What do you do if you don’t own an iPhone? There are answers, but I’m not sure they're really good ones.
Mainstream and Cutting Edge
To address the impracticalities of trying to offer a custom fit, companies next turn to broad, functional improvements. How are companies with goals of selling millions of VR headsets trying to make them more comfortable? Well, mostly by making them smaller and lighter too. One of the biggest changes the Quest Pro brought to Meta’s line of consumer headsets was its compact size, a hardware win achieved by changing lens systems from Fresnel lenses to pancake lenses, and redistributing the batteries from the front of the device to the back for a more balanced fit.
The Quest Pro is more immediately wearable and goggle-like because of it, even if it’s missing some of the conveniences of the older Quest 2, like a top head strap or a built-in system for blocking out light (the Quest Pro is open on the sides by default with optional magnetic covers). These changes also pose potential challenges for another kind of user: glasses wearers. The Quest Pro sits ever so slightly closer to your eyes than the Quest 2 does, which means if you wear glasses, the fit is tighter and you’ll have to adjust more often to make your lenses and the headset’s line up, especially if you’re using eye-tracking in supported apps.
The HTC Vive XR Elite takes this to the extreme by asking you to ditch your glasses entirely. HTC’s upcoming standalone headset is even more attractive than the Quest Pro thanks to its overall lightness, similar redistributed battery weight, and comfy face cushion, but its lenses sit so close to your eyes that you can’t wear the headset with glasses. HTC has cleverly included adjustable diopters to tune the focus so glasses shouldn’t be necessary in the first place, but if you’re achieving your radical comfort improvements by excluding a group of users who might fall outside of the prescription range of your headset, there might be a problem. Neglecting glasses-wearers is odd especially when Meta and HTC’s design efforts seem as motivated by making headsets easier to wear as they are making them as aesthetically pleasing as possible.
It Has to Be Modular
I didn’t start thinking about the inability of VR headset makers to adequately address the comfort problems of VR until I started using Razer’s new Adjustable Head Strap System and Facial Interface (available for $69.99 individually or $139.99 bundled). Both of Razer’s new accessories are designed for the Quest 2, replacing Meta’s standard straps and face cushions with alternatives that are easier to remove and attach and do a better job of keeping my face cool while playing games. Razer’s drawing on one of the undersung aspects of the Quest 2, which is that the two parts of the headset that could pose the biggest issue are also totally removable. The head straps pop on and off just as easily as the face cushion.
Razer’s versions of the straps cup the bottom and sides of your scalp and have the same basic velcro adjustment along the top and near your temples. While the Adjustable Headset System was more comfortable and less-head-squeezing than the default straps the Quest 2 ships with, and even the crank-tightening Elite Strap that’s been my preferred option since I first bought a Quest 2, it wasn’t more secure. I could feel my view shifting in VR experiences if I moved enough. That looseness made it easier to attach and reattach Razer’s straps and made it so my headset left even less of an impression on my face after a long session, but I’m not sure it’ll be the best option for everyone.
The Razer Facial Interface, on the other hand, was far superior. Razer’s face cushion snaps on as quickly as its head strap does and includes ventilation on the sides to keep the inside of the Quest 2 way less swampy than it can get after a workout in Supernatural. Meta’s had issues with its own cushions, even recalling an early version because it caused some users to develop a rash. The Razer Facial Interface is designed to avoid those issues from the start, with silicone that’s free of latex and a design whose thickness varies so that it doesn’t press on any part of your face harder than another. It’s a legitimately great addition to any Quest 2 owner's setup.
That these accessories even exist is a good thing, and secretly, I think, the only way forward if VR headsets are going to become as widely used as their pushers want them to be. Not everyone’s body is the same, and a headset should be as modular as possible to address that. There’s no reason to recreate the mistakes of smartphones and tablets; let VR headsets adapt to their users and create a comfortable environment on their terms. A Quest 2 with a bunch of custom attachments might not be as uniform or “sexy” as the Quest Pro, but it's offering a better, more personal experience. And that’s the only one wearable tech should be offering.
Photography by Ian Carlos Campbell