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The Real Cost of Virtual Reality (Hint: It Isn’t Just the Headset)

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Virtual reality headsets are coming. Facebook’s much-hyped Oculus Rift is already available for pre-order, with the first units hitting the street on March 28, while pre-orders for HTC and Valve’s Vive are set to begin Feb. 29, with headsets reaching buyers in April.

But these headsets won’t come cheap. The Oculus Rift costs $600, and the Vive is expected to cost at least as much. And those prices don’t even tell you the whole cost.

That’s because to use these headsets, you’ll also need a high-powered gaming PC — which most consumers don’t already have. Sony’s PlayStation VR requires you to have a PlayStation 4 console.

So what kind of setup do you need to use a VR headset like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, and how much will it actually cost you? Here’s a rundown.

Oculus Rift

According to Oculus, to use the Rift, you’ll need a system with an Intel Core i5-4590 processor or better, at least 8 GB of RAM, and — most importantly — either an Nvidia GTX 970 or an AMD R9 290 graphics card or better. In addition, you’ll need a free HDMI port, three USB 3.0 slots and 1 USB 2.0 slot. Oh, and you’ll need to be running Windows 7 at least.

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That’s more firepower than your average home desktop can provide. Hell, even my own PC — which has the Nvidia GTX 970 graphics card and can run all of today’s newest games on their highest settings — fails to meet the minimum processor requirement.

You’ve got two options when it comes to upgrading your system to meet the Rift’s requirements:

If you want to buy one, Oculus has teamed up with Alienware, ASUS, and Dell to offer special pricing on Oculus-ready PCs when you buy a Rift. Both the Alienware and Dell PCs start at $1,000, while the ASUS starts at $950.

Throw in the actual price of the Rift, and you’re looking at $1,600 for the Dell or Alienware PCs and the Oculus. The ASUS package will set you back $1,550. That’s a lot of bones.

Alternatively, you could take matters into your own hands — and save some money — by building your own Rift-ready PC.

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According to Amazon, that Intel Core i5 processor will run you $200. You’re also going to need a motherboard that has enough USB and HDMI ports. That’ll cost about $60 on the low end. Plus, 8 GB of RAM costs $40, and a case costs another $60. That puts you at $360.

Next you’ll need a hard drive to store everything. A 250 GB drive will run you around $25, while a power supply costs about $25, bringing the total to $410. Your biggest expense comes from that Nvidia or AMD graphics card. Both the Nvidia GTX 970 and AMD R9 290 are priced at roughly $350.

Throw in a Windows 10 install disc for another $120, and you’re looking at a grand total of $880. Add the price of the Oculus to the equation, and you’re looking at $1,480 — $75 less than the ASUS PC bundle, and $125 cheaper than the Alienware and Dell packages.

HTC Vive

While pre-orders to HTC and Valve’s Vive headset are set to begin Feb. 29, the companies have yet to release firm system requirements. According to Nvidia, the headset will run on the same graphics card as the Oculus, so it’s safe to assume that the Vive’s requirements will be relatively, if not completely, similar.

The Vive does have one extra system requirement that the Oculus doesn’t: To take full advantage of it, you need a 15-by-15-foot space. That’s right: To walk around your virtual world with the Vive, you’ll need some free space in the real world.

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For folks who don’t have cavernous rooms in their homes that are devoid of furniture, HTC and Valve have added a special front-facing camera to their headset that lets you see outlines of objects that might be in your path, like coffee tables and chairs.

Unfortunately, we still don’t know the exact price of the Vive, so figuring out how much it would cost for the headset and a compatible PC is impossible at this point. In all likelihood, though, the Vive will be at least as, if not more, expensive than the Rift, due to the fact that it is more complex.

PlayStation VR

Like the Vive, we still don’t have an exact price for the PlayStation VR. Sony has been tight-lipped about when its headset will hit the market. What we do know is that you’ll need a PlayStation 4 console to use the VR.

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Right now, you can buy a PS4 with a game for $350. The speculation is that the PS VR will cost about the same price as the console. That puts the price at about $700 for the entire setup, making the PS VR the least expensive of this bunch.

Of course, the PS VR isn’t quite as powerful as the Rift or Vive, which boast sharper images.

Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley or on Google+.