Last updated: December 3rd, 2021
Virtual reality (VR) is a big part of modern gaming, and possibly no other genre lends itself to VR as well as sim racing. In this guide, I’m going to share some tips on how to pick the best VR headsets for sim racing, to help you take your sim experience to the next level.
Currently, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to headsets, but some are far better than others, especially concerning how they handle racing games. Each VR headset comes with its advantages and disadvantages, so I’ve gone into some depth below on the features and functions you should pay special attention to when browsing for a new one.
However, it’s not just as simple as which one has the highest resolution display; there’re a lot of things to consider before you buy.
Having just tested the Samsung Odyssey G9, I must admit, modern gaming monitor tech is extremely impressive. But, for sim racing I’m a committed VR headset user.
If you want more from your sim racing experience, A VR setup is, in my opinion, absolutely the way to go.
Virtual reality is a steadily growing market with some very late generation 2 headsets about to drop in the market before Christmas. The Valve Index is, in my opinion among the easiest to setup (check out our graphics settings here) and best performing headsets to use. And at the moment, we’re all waiting patiently at SRC HQ for our HP Reverb G2 to arrive to see if it knocks the Index off the top spot.
But is VR better for sim racing, or should you just stick to monitors? Today, I’ll be looking at the pros and cons of VR headset use with your gaming PC.
Why should you add VR to your sim racing setup?
Firstly, and probably most obviously, racing in VR feels real. The accidents, especially!
In iRacing when you leave the pits you often drive straight through another pitted car before you exit. Not a big deal, as it’s not an incident until you’re on the track. But with a VR headset on, the first time you drive through another car, you’ll jump out of your skin. When you grid up for a race start and look around you by turning your head, your competitors are all there, you’re surrounded. Because the Valve has headphone speakers, you’re immersed.
The discipline of using vision to find the best racing line through a corner is exactly the same as driving a track car. As you approach the corner you’re setting a brake point in your peripheral vision because you’re focused on the apex. As you brake, all of your visual focus should be on the exit. In real racing, you’ll move your head which makes you physically align yourself with the corner’s apex to exit line. Scott explains vision so much better than I do, suffice it to say, it’s exactly the same approach in VR. You are then, practising the habits you need to drive on a real track successfully.
Sensitivity to track detail
VR enables you to “see” details in the circuit you might have missed on monitors. I realized this at Lime Rock Park in the Global Mazda Cup. In VR you can really see the camber on the inside of this corner:
And of course, once you’re visually aware of a track detail, it’s probable that you can feel that detail, too. This brings me to the next benefit of VR.
Early warnings via extra sensory input
It’s easier to drive well with a VR headset because you get an earlier warning of what the car’s doing.
In sim racing, you rely on your eyes to sense rotation in the car whereas in circuit racing on a real track, you’ll sense rotation through your body. There’s a delay in getting messages like this if you’re looking at monitors which makes catching an accident much more difficult. You start to learn to drive the car from memory, not from feel. This isn’t the case with VR – it seems I’m much more sensitive to smaller movements in the car at corner entry, so I’m already able to predict what the car is going to do. It’s not magic, you’re just getting the information earlier as your eyes sense your entire environment rotating.
You also get a feel for undulations in the circuit. Using the camber example at Lime Rock Park above, in VR you’re just more aware that the car has climbed over a small hump. It’s a useful sensation once you become aware of it.
That early warning system makes the car easier to control, so you’re driving more consistently.
You drive more accurately
You are fully immersed in an environment and your eyes are able to give your brain much more precise data about the way the car is moving. I think that the way you translate this back into driving inputs is critical. you know your line and the information you received is accurate, then your steering inputs will be correct. Have you ever approached a corner only to find you’re making last second adjustments to the line you’re taking? Monitors, especially triple setups are a nightmare for this.
Driving with a monitor is not immersive, so you’re adjusting to a way of seeing things that doesn’t happen on the track, especially as your line of sight switches from your outside monitor to the one in front of you. Bezel correction is a little annoyance that VR doesn’t suffer from.
But are there any cons to VR Headset use?
Screen door and clarity can be an issue. Screen door is less of a problem in the newer headsets, where the fine lines separating pixels (or subpixels) become visible in the displayed image. Clarity remains an issue – where everything just feels that little bit out of focus. You can go a long way to improving teh clarity of the image by making sure the headset is adjusted properly for your face. But even after a lot of fiddling around it still isn’t perfect.
Because of issues like screen door and clarity, VR can make your eyes feel tired after prolonged use. Some days, it’s fine and I’ll do several races. But others, I don’t fancy it as much.
Graphics settings are initially difficult to come to terms with, because what works on monitors might not be correct for your headset. I’ve written about settings for VR here, so take a look. Once you get a setup you like, this isn’t a problem.
Finally, some people feel motion sickness. But not for long! I found after 2 laps I’d become used to the sensation of moving without moving. These days I don’t notice it at all.
What makes a Great Sim Racing VR Headset?
There are plenty of options when it comes to picking a VR headset, but you can narrow it down quite substantially for sim racing in particular. Before I dive in and show you some of the best models available on the market, I’d like to address some of the issues and myths that are often brought up concerning VR and sim racing.
Will using VR in a racing simulator make you faster?
Decide for yourself, but as we’ve discussed above, you will have a better perception of depth and movement, which will improve your ability to judge the distance of cars and objects and make car control corrections far earlier. Plus, you’ll get a near 360° view of cars and the track in a 1:1 ratio which will enhance the realism of the game and help you feel like you’re actually in a real car.
VR headsets can make it near on impossible to use button boxes, so if you use a button box regularly consider that before you decide to splash any cash on a new headset. Another thing is you will not be able to see your steering wheel or any of your rig setup for that matter, so if you’ve just invested in a fancy looking piece of kit, you won’t be able to enjoy its aesthetically pleasing looks if you’re wearing a VR headset.
No matter how great or immersive VR is, current technology for headsets can’t match the graphic quality of a gaming monitor. But still, you’ll have the ability to turn your head and aim for the apex when cornering, so you’ll get more of a feel for driving.
So, what is the best VR headset for sim racing? While there’s no single answer, factors such as the items below really count. We’ll be looking at these in more detail:
- Display and sound quality
- Design and overall comfort
- Field of View (FOV)
- Position tracking and range of motion
Our VR Headset Recommendations
Here are some of what I consider to be the best picks for sim racers, in no particular order.
Samsung HMD Odyssey+
Price: $629.70 (more info)
– High resolution 3K display (1440×1600 per eye)
– Wide 110° FOV
– High range of motion / quality sound
– No wireless option
– Tracking not as precise as those with external sensors
Oculus Quest 2
Price: $399 (more info)
– High resolution
– Small latency
– Limited battery life
– Standard FOV
– You need a Facebook account to run it
Oculus Rift S
Price: $399 (more info)
– Comfortable and easy to wear
– Relatively affordable
– Low refresh rate
– Standard FOV
– Getting dated
HP Reverb G2
Price: $840 (more info)
– High resolution (2160 x 2160px per eye)
– Great sound
– Wide FOV (114°)
– Standard refresh rate (90hz)
Price: £919 / $1200 (more info)
– High resolution (Dual 1440 x 1600px LCD)
– Great sound
– Good 110° FOV
– Very high refresh rate (144hz)
– Requires 2 SteamVR 2.0 Base Stations
Price: $799.00 (more info)
– High 120hz refresh rate
– Huge 200° FOV
– Dual 2560x1440px RGB LCD panels
– Compatible with Steam VR Lighthouse 1 and 2
– No sound
– Requires external sensor
As I mentioned above, when purchasing a VR headset explicitly for sim racing, there’re a few things to keep in mind. Sim racing offers a unique gaming experience, and so you need to make sure you pick an option that is adequately suited, and not any headset for gaming in general.
Let’s take a look in more detail.
Display and sound quality
The display is a significant factor to consider when switching to VR or upgrading your current model, and the most important, as this is what you will be looking at while you have the headset on!
The higher the resolution, the sharper the image will be, and thus the more realistic it will feel. This pairs with the refresh rate of the display. A high refresh rate makes for smoother visuals. In case you’re not too clued up on what these terms mean, then feel free to check out my gaming monitors guide which explains in everyday English what each of the display-related figures, jargon, and technical specifications mean; all of which is relevant to the display element of VR headsets.
Critically with VR, “screen door” is a negative factor (noticing the little black lines between pixels on the screen). This is much less of an issue with the latest VR headsets and really nothing to worry about now. More of an issue is “clarity” – the sense of focus on the image.
You can have a high resolution with poor clarity, so do be sure you’ve found a device that can deliver a sense of focus. Many headsets have quite a narrow tolerance for clarity, if the headset isn’t worn quite correctly, clarity can be much worse than the manufacturer intended. Simple adjustments to the fit can often improve the situation.
The sound system of the VR headset is also vital for sim racers, as the quality of this will dictate how realistic it feels. With constant engine sounds, tyre squeals, or maybe a loud crunching noise if you hit the barrier, you don’t want the sounds to be distorted or muffled. This will make for an unpleasant racing experience and can hurt your ears too. Plus, in simulations like rally where you have a co-driver, you want their voice to be crystal clear.
Therefore, it is essential to consider whether you want a headset with a built-in sound system or whether you would instead use an external sound system. Some VR headsets also include a built-in microphone, a critical consideration if you plan to race with your friends.
The Valve Index (pictured above) has a very comfortable fit (and happens to be the current SRC HQ headset!).
Field of View (FOV)
Next up, you should think about the field of view (FOV) of the headset. Usually, this falls around 100-110°, (the Valve Index has a 110° FOV) but some headsets offer more and some less.
A larger field of view will make things feel more realistic, while also meaning you don’t have to turn your head as much to check where other racers are.
The next thing to think about is compatibility, and this relates to the platform you use for sim racing. Some headsets are only compatible with specific machines, so you need to make sure that the one you opt for works with your PC or console.
Compatibility also extends to the sim titles that you want to play. Not all racing sims support VR, so it’s essential to make sure that the games you want to play will allow you to make use of your VR headset. Always check beforehand, so that you don’t end up wasting your money on a headset you can’t fully utilize.
The Pimax headset is compatible with the VR towers supplied with the Valve Index which might make for a more economic upgrade path.
So, what VR headset to buy for sim racing?
Our take: if you want a seriously up to date piece if kit, it has to be the Reverb G2 – the resolution is superior to the Valve Index and honestly, you will be blown away by the clarity of the image especially if you’ve tried VR before. However, you need a hefty PC to run one. Expect to be disappointed if you’ve got a GPU below the spec of a RTX 2080 ti, and even then, ours struggled until we got the settings right. If, however, you’ve got a more powerful 30 series NVIDIA GPU, then the G2 will be ideal for sim racing.