After years of false starts, consumer-facing virtual reality has finally become mainstream. Whether used for gaming, fitness, social networking, media consumption, or even therapeutic reasons, VR headsets are an increasingly common sight in homes and businesses. Strapping them on allows us to see virtual worlds and impossible vistas as if we were really there.
But, what about those of us that need a little extra help just seeing the real world, let alone virtual ones? For virtual reality users that require corrective lenses, wearing a VR headset can be a difficult task. Contact lenses might help some, but others can't use them or would prefer not to. For these individuals, attempting to wear their headset over a pair of eyeglasses can be an uncomfortable experience that risks damaging both their expensive electronics and corrective eyewear.
Thankfully, several companies have come to the aid of those in this particular situation, producing prescription lenses that can be slotted directly into popular VR headsets to remove any need for eyeglasses by helping the headset itself to correct your vision.
We're going to take a look at who actually needs these lenses, which headsets are supported, and what's involved in ordering your own pair of prescription lens inserts.
Who needs corrective lenses for their VR headset?
This is a fairly simple question to answer. If you use eyeglasses on a daily basis, you should consider a pair of corrective lenses for your VR headset. However, because of the diverse vision issues that require prescription corrective lenses, some users that require eyeglasses may not necessarily need corrective lenses for their VR headsets. This includes those diagnosed as mildly nearsighted, or myopic, and those that typically only require glasses while doing detailed work or using a PC.
There's an easy way to determine which camp you fall into. First, take off any corrective lenses you are wearing. Then, put on your headset of choice and make sure all of its available adjustments are correctly calibrated for you. Finally, check if you can clearly see all of the fine details of the virtual space you find yourself in. If you can, you're good to go. If things seem blurry, you may want a pair of corrective lens inserts to help you out.
Why can't everyone just wear contact lenses?
As mentioned above, if you're comfortable wearing contact lenses and have a corrective lens prescription that supports them, they are your simplest option for seeing well in your VR headset. However, not everyone is a good candidate for contact lenses.
Poor candidates for contacts include those with significant astigmatism, a common defect in the curvature of the eye that causes blurry vision; patients with presbyopia, a condition most commonly seen in older adults that generally requires reading glasses or bifocals to correct; and those with dry eye issues that make it uncomfortable or inadvisable to wear contacts. There are also individuals that simply can't get used to the process of inserting contact lenses into their eyes, or would rather not try at all.
For potential VR users that fall into any of these categories, contacts don't represent the panacea for in-headset vision correction that they may, at first, seem to be.
So why can't I just wear my glasses?
There are two main reasons for this: Discomfort and scratched lenses.
Different VR headsets use different systems to mount themselves on the user's head. The most common formats of head mounting systems are adjustable straps and "halo" mounts.
The Meta (formerly Oculus) Quest 2 uses simple straps that travel horizontally around the back of the user's head (typically right above the ears) and over top of it to distribute the weight of the head-mounted display across both axes. Other models, like the Valve Index and some entries in HTC's Vive line, use similar setups, albeit with more complex levels of adjustability.
Competing solutions like the PSVR (seen above), its PlayStation VR2 successor, and several Windows Mixed Reality headsets instead use a halo system that suspends the actual head-mounted display from a ring designed to sit securely around the crown of the wearer's head.
Depending on the shape of the user's head, the specific location of their ears, the style of eyeglasses worn, and other variances in user anatomy and product design, you're looking at a nearly endless number of ways for headsets and eyeglasses to interfere with each other. Even if they can coexist to some extent, it's unlikely the combination of both worn at once will be comfortable enough to support multiple hours of simultaneous use.
Let's say you're lucky enough to have a headset and pair of eyeglasses that somehow avoid interfering with each other at all. There's still one location where they absolutely must compete for space: right in front of your eyes.
Depending on the headset you're using and the unique shape of your eyes, there may be little space between you and the lenses of your VR headset. Often, there isn't enough to fit a pair of standard eyeglass lenses at all. Even if there is, any jarring motion (which you should expect in any active VR game or workout experience) can result in lenses smacking into each other and potentially causing mutual damage.
Most VR headset lenses are made of soft plastics. Meanwhile, eyeglass lenses are formed out of similar plastics or polycarbonate materials. Plastic is a cheaper, more common option. Polycarbonate, meanwhile, tends to be used for wearers with stronger prescriptions, due to its ability to provide the same level of correction via thinner, lighter lenses. Polycarbonate lenses tend to be more easily damaged, but are almost always covered in a scratch-resistant coating to prevent harm to the base material of the lens.
To be clear, no material or coating will be safe if you start scraping it against another lens within your headset. Just a short VR gaming session or workout routine can produce more than enough friction and impact to ruin the lenses of your headset, eyeglasses, or both. Obviously, each represents an expensive proposition to replace, and any damage to either will be ruinous to your vision or VR enjoyment in the meantime.
How do VR prescription lenses fix all these issues?
Rather than resting loosely on your face, VR prescription lenses are designed to be clipped to (or otherwise attached to) your headset itself, sitting between your eyes and the head-mounted display's original lenses. This lets them provide the vision correction you need while remaining firmly in place within the small gap between your eyes and the headset.
Their rigid installation also prevents any amount of headset jostling from causing a lens collision. Their semi-permanent presence in your headset also means you can always strap it on confidently, with no other correction needed.
Which headsets are supported?.
Because of the various VR headsets on the market and their diverse designs, lenses must be made to fit each headset. Thankfully, purveyors of these vision aids have released solutions for every common VR headset, as well as a few you've probably never heard of. Links are provided to headsets still being sold today.
Below is a list of the models with readily available prescription lens inserts currently being sold for their unique designs:
Meta / Oculus - Oculus Rift CV1, Oculus Rift S, Oculus Go, Oculus Quest, Oculus/Meta Quest 2
HTC - HTV Vive, HTV Vive Pro, HTC Vive Cosmos, HTC Vive Focus 3, HTC Vive Pro 2
Samsung - Samsung Odyssey
HP - HP Reverb, HP Reverb G2
Sony - PSVR
Valve - Valve Index
Others - Pico G2 4K, Varjo Aero, DJI HD FPV Goggles
This list of models likely covers over 99% of all current VR headset users. However, if you find yourself with one of the rare models not included in this list, companies also make specially-designed eyeglasses tailored to be as thin as possible, and to include elastic bands rather than standard arms. These provide an option for users who would otherwise fall through the cracks, but still include a risk of scratching, albeit a reduced one when compared to using a standard pair of glasses.
How much do lens inserts cost?
Prices vary based on the model they're designed for, the manufacturer and retailer selling them, and the complexity of the particular mounting system they use. This last point is particularly important as users that share their headset among multiple individuals will want one of the lens insert options that can quickly be swapped out, rather than models designed to be installed on a semi-permanent basis using adhesive or fragile plastic clips.
That said, prices typically range from $60 to $100. This might seem pricey at first. But, compare it to what you paid for your VR headset or prescription eyeglasses. Even the most budget-friendly mainstream VR option today, the Meta Quest 2, will run you more than twice that much to replace it. Meanwhile, prescription eyewear lenses can easily cost you several hundreds of dollars, depending on your particular medical insurance, prescription complexity, and lens material and coating options.
The initial outlay of $60 to $100 for a pair of these lens inserts is downright cheap compared to the cost of any damage they'll prevent to your expensive electronics and eyeglasses.
Where can I get prescription inserts?
Unfortunately, you can't walk into your local eyeglass shop and order a pair of inserts for your headset. That said, there are several online purveyors of prescription lens inserts that have grown to lead this still-young product category. Below, I've collected some of the most notable sources on the web today.
Framesdirect.com - This online eyeglass retailer partnered with Meta to be the official provider of VR prescription lenses for the Oculus/Meta Quest line. This means they only offer lenses for those models. However, their blessing from Meta essentially guarantees their "VirtuClear" lens inserts will provide a perfect fit for Meta and Oculus branded headsets. Total average cost: $80
VR Lens Lab - This site offers one of the widest selections of supported headset models on the web, including a platform-agnostic frame designed to be worn by the user within the tight confines of a VR headset. VR Lens Lab is also affiliated with popular VR headset accessory maker VR Cover. Total average cost: $59 to $89
VR Optician - Another purveyor of lens inserts for a massive variety of headsets. The site also offers free shipping on all orders within the US and a variety of optional coatings designed to keep lenses clean, block blue light, and more. Total average cost: $69 to $97 (depending on selected coatings).
Reloptix - Providers of inserts for a smaller selection of supported headsets. This retailer focuses on a unique magnetic connection system designed to allow users to easily swap out their lenses for multiple prescription users, or to remove them entirely for those that need no correction. Total average cost: $100
Adlens - A UK seller that designs and manufactures its products domestically. It provides a proprietary anti-reflective coating for its lenses, but only stocks inserts for the Oculus/Meta Quest line of headsets.
Will I need to see a doctor?
This depends on whether or not you have a valid eyeglass prescription. If you do, several of the retailers above will allow you to input the various metrics from that prescription yourself, when you place your order. These will be used to provide a pair of lenses specifically tailored to correct the vision of each eye.
Only Framesdirect.com requires you to provide a copy of a current, valid prescription. This means that you'll need a prescription issued to you within the last one to two years. Of course, inputting the info yourself on the other sites above means you've got more flexibility to use older prescriptions. But, keep in mind that you could be ordering a sub-optimal lens if your actual prescription has changed since an out-of-date prescription was issued to you.
If you've never worn glasses before, or if your current prescription is out of date, you'll need a fresh eye exam to provide you with a new, valid prescription. This will ensure that metrics like sphere, cylinder, axis, add, and pupillary distance are all current and accurate for input into the order page provided by the retailer of your choice. The American Academy of Ophthalmology has published a guide to reading your eyeglass prescription to help you understand these numbers a little better.
Many occasional corrective lens wearers might skip the option of adding a pair of corrective lenses to their VR headsets. But, for most daily eyeglass wearers, they are a near-vital component of any fun, comfortable VR experience. Even those on the borderline between these groups might find them a great way to protect their investments and create an easily-replaceable barrier between the lenses of their VR headset and any abuse they may suffer.
Whether or not these prescription inserts are right for your needs is entirely up to you, your eyecare professional, and your wallet. But, keep in mind that spending a bit more now on an accessory that may seem unnecessary could prevent the need to spend hundreds of dollars down the road on headset and eyeglass replacement costs.