Virtual reality — once the stuff of sci-fi — is becoming more real every day as the technology continues to make its way into the mainstream. But if you don't have hundreds of dollars to spend on new hardware from the liks of Oculus and HTC, Google's Cardboard has rapidly emerged as the affordable VR viewer of choice for a host of third-party apps running on iOS and Android.
YouTube has now fully supported VR for more than a year, and the technology's been embraced by everyone from The New York Times (which sent Cardboard viewers to all its Sunday edition subscribers last year) to Visa and Bank of America (which handed out Cardboard viewers at a New England Patriots football game). The Coachella music festival put out a VR app in conjunction with its musical festival this month, while New York’s Museum of Modern Art has made VR a part of a five-night showcase of Sundance Film Festival New Frontier indie artist content.
The past few months have seen more VR headsets entering the market with the $599 Oculus Rift and $799 HTC Vive joining the $100 Gear VR as virtual reality options. But Cardboard remains the most affordable option — not to mention the most accessible and easy to use. Here's how to get started and where to explore once you've got your hands on a headset.
What You'll Need
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Often available as DIY kit, Cardboard (actually made of cardboard) pairs with your iPhone or Android device to create a very serviceable headset: It’s easy to assemble and break down. If you've got a super-sized phone like the iPhone 6 Plus or Galaxy S7 Edge, you'll need Google Cardboard version 2.
Google sells its own basic viewer for $15. Other companies — including Homido, Merge VR and Noon VR, among others — sell sturdier Cardboard-compatible headsets offering durability and greater visual acuity for considerably more. (And Google may soon offer a higher end headset of its own, according to a Financial Times report.)
You can purchase a large number of variations on the Cardboard theme from different companies, such as the $25 DODOCase or the $15 I Am Cardboard VR Kit. Small tweaks like colors or the inclusion of an Near Field Communications tag differentiate kits, but when in doubt, just look for the orange Works With Google Cardboard label on the unit, to be assured that it will show you any Cardboard app.
If you’re feeling handy, you can build your own unit with simple materials, readily obtained from your local hardware store or online — such as cardboard, biconvex lenses, velcro, magnets, and a rubber band.
Once you've got a headset in place, you're able to check out some of the newest and most popular virtual reality apps and content available for iOS and Android. Here's what's caught our headset-covered eyes.
Vrse is at the forefront of cinematic VR experience, featuring fully immersive 3D and full-screen, 360-degree curated video, complete with dynamic directional binaural sound. You can view videos with or without a headset. The app is an entrée into Vrse's independently produced content. The company makes and distributes both its own movies and that of others to view via its dedicated app, including new entries such as My Mother’s Wing, about a family in living in Gaza, and The Click Effect, which documents two marine researchers as they dive below the ocean’s surface to capture the sounds dolphins and sperm whales use to communicate.
A strong competitor to Vrse, Jaunt offers both an app and deep cinematic virtual reality content. All professional-grade stereographic VR videos are free for Google Cardboard. Jaunt's content library features selections from Ray Lamontagne, Unicorn Island, and R5. You can also find an assortment of news reports by Ryot, documentaries from Sky News and a travel feature from The North Face. You can also watch Invasion, a star-studded interactive short from Baobab Studios.
If the great outdoors, personal challenges and conceptual video are your jam, the immensely popular Discovery VR app will transport you through exclusive content with new features like Ghost Asylum, a paranormal tale where you can help investigators chase down ghosts in asylums, sanitariums and mental institutions. Also available for your viewing pleasure are shows like Pressure Chamber, where your courage and fortitude are put to the test, and The Potentialists, as you explore adventures and intellectual challenges in 360-degrees. Not jazzed by the new stuff? There’s always Mythbusters, Wildlife and Puppy Bowl from Discovery's cable lineup.
The New York Times scored a major coup for journalism and VR by bringing this technology to its mainstream audience via serious news coverage. The app — which presents documentaries and other features — is stunning. Current entries include The Contenders, a report on the presidential campaign covering the current candidates. Take Flight, co-produced with Vrse, features various Hollywood luminaries like Benicio Del Toro and Charlize Theron floating in space to pay homage to the magic of filmmaking. You can view these incredibly elaborate productions on the desktop, as 360-degree video, or through the Google Cardboard headset. The newspaper adds original VR content each month.
This arcade-style adventure game focuses on the inside of your brain as you track down and annihilate the neurons that cause mental illness. The app combines fast-paced gameplay with superior graphics, while the presentation — which you can play via a headset or on your phone — depicts a surgical prototype bathyscaphe, scaled to a fraction of its normal size, as it moves through the brain. Your mission is to target and neutralize those nasty cells.
GoPro conjures up thoughts of the daredevil sporting scenes captured by the company's action cameras — which most people prefer to view from the vantage point of solid ground. With the new GoPro VR app, you can still get in on the thrills without having to abandon your couch. Shot in 360-degrees, Tahiti Surf VR, Skicross WorldCup Final and many more videos are naturals for VR. But sports are just part of the large roster on offer. Categories like Street, Art, Daily Life, Architecture, Fashion, Landscape and more round out the GoPro selections. The app features gyroscope support and rendering of up to 60fps to watch videos side-by-side or in 360 degrees in your headset. You can also stream your own 360-degree videos from the GoPro VR platform (opens in new tab) or play videos stored on your smartphone.
What’s VR without an old-fashioned, nausea-inducing roller coaster? VR Roller coaster gives you just the right amount of 3D loop and dive for that singular sensation of your guts dropping to the ground. Tap with one finger to re-calibrate the forward direction; tap with two fingers to restart a ride, while controlling the app with head tracking. A randomly generated city changes each time you open the app, serving up noisy crowds, buildings, birds, screaming riders and an airship. Try the app with any mobile stereoscopic headset packing a built-in accelerometer.
Cardboard Camera (Android)
There’s plenty of professionally produced VR content out there, but what if you want to quickly create your own? Google's own Cardboard Camera lets you do that, if you've got an Android phone. Shooting VR photos is as easily as shooting a panorama. When your done, just view the finished product in your headset: the photos are both 360-degree and 3D, so object perspective stays true for beautiful panos with depth and sound that you can see and hear in VR.
This unusual and conceptual app evokes the tragedy of war from the perspective of a poet warrior by integrating animations with Great Britain’s controversial war poet Siegfried Sassoon’s The Kiss. The app transports you to the World War 1 era and into a mindset captured by Sassoon’s work. The Kiss was written just before the Battle of the Somme, while Sassoon underwent army training. Produced in partnership with BBC Arts, actor Michael Sheen narrates the animation.
Outdoor meditation can be a serene experience, but not everyone is lucky enough to have a perfect natural hideout nearby. The $1 Relaxation VR offers 360-degree video clips of three gorgeous locations that are sure to adjust your mindset: the 12 Apostles, Great Ocean Road Australia; the Rock Pools of South NSW, Australia; and Dream Beach, Portugal. You can choose between a guided Yoga Nidra meditation and somnolent music. Instruction available in male or female voices provides a meditation guide for newcomers. To choose options or the main menu, just move your head.
Titans of Space (Android)
If you want to get an idea of what outer space looks like from the perspective of a free-floating space traveler, Titans of Space is superlative and engrossing. Choose options by glance, and you can spend as much time as you want exploring each module. The experience is very smooth, as the video runs at around 50 to 60fps. While distances between planets are not scaled, you can still get a sense of vastness and the relative size and composition of the planets. The free version of the app features a musical soundtrack, but you can add a 50-minute narrative via an in-app purchase. Otherwise, you can rely on the informational text at most tour stops.
Not into light entertainment? No problem. The Mativision VR service has teamed up with Medical Realities to develop the VRinOR app, which recently let people from all over the world tune into a streaming cancer operation. Dr. Shafi Ahmed of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London live streamed his team removing a cancerous tumor from a patient’s colon — and in case you’re wondering, the 70-year-old patient was totally down with the whole idea. A video of the procedure will be coming to the app soon. Meantime, you can download VRinOR for iOS or Android and read all about it.
YouTube has a wealth of 360-degree video that you can watch through the Cardboard viewer. Be sure to watch via the latest version of Chrome, Opera or Firefox on your computer. For mobile viewing, use the latest version of the YouTube app for Android or iOS (opens in new tab). For an immersive experience, you can even watch 360-degree videos with Cardboard and the YouTube Android app.