There’s a lot of buzz going on about virtual reality (VR). There are articles popping up in the news and a lot of general excitement. With smartphone-compatible versions of VR, like Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, already on the market, as well as the recent pre-release of the Oculus Rift and the imminent arrival of the HTC Vive, one thing is certain: virtual reality is coming.
Although many have forecasted VR’s categorical success, others are not so certain about it. Some naysayers have even predicted that VR will be a complete flop, saying it’s doomed to the same fate as 3D TV.
The biggest problem with 3D TV was that there simply wasn’t enough content to persuade mainstream consumers to go out and buy expensive new TV sets (not to mention that the technology was imperfect at best…). It always remained a niche venture. But this is just not the case with VR. As I write these sentences, even before Oculus Rift, the first dedicated, full-fledged VR headset, becomes generally available to consumers, there are already tons of really cool applications in all sorts of domains, not just gaming. Here are five of the the best.
1. You can teleport yourself just about anywhere in the world and feel as if you’re really there using the new Google Street View VR app
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve been to Paris, and the truth is that walking down Boulevard Saint Michel in real life still beats any approximation to that experience that you can have with an HD screen. However, short of actually purchasing an $800 round-trip ticket to Europe, the Google Street View VR app (currently available for android devices using Google Cardboard or Gear VR) is about as realistic and genuine an experience as you can have in another city. Even with regular old Street View, I enjoy “exploring” foreign cities from behind my laptop’s screen – I think most of us appreciate how close we are brought to faraway places with those panoramic images, and being able to rotate around was part of that.
Well, the 360º VR functionality is a step up from traditional Street View. Here, you get to freely zip through city streets, getting a real feel for their spaces and places. But unlike the Street View we’re accustomed to, the VR function lets you really focus on small details you might otherwise miss, since you are completely immersed in the experience. And that’s the magic it offers: unlike staring at your computer screen, where you never lose sight of the fact that you are, in fact, sitting in your living room, Street View VR is so immersive that you become aware only of your virtual surroundings.
2. You can watch movies on a 140-foot screen on the moon
Oculus Cinema is an app that lets you watch movies and other video content as though you were in a movie theater, an IMAX theater, or on the moon. The light from the movie screen bounces off moon rocks around you, and if you turn to your right, you’ll see the Apollo moon lander (which, of course, explains how it is that you came to be binge watching your new favorite series on the moon).
This is really cool because it accurately recreates the cozy feeling of being in a theater while specifically focussing on watching a movie. Much like in a theater, it’s dark around you and you can’t glance down at your phone to check the game scores – which is what is cool about the cinema in the first place: escaping our mundane existences and diving into the movie’s story. Also, Oculus has just announced that friends are coming to the oculus cinema; they are adding a social function to the app which will let your friends sit in the same theater (or part of the moon) as you while you watch the movie, thereby overcoming some of the loneliness of VR.
3. You can attend live shows, like the filming of SNL
One of the things I most enjoy when I go to any live performance is turning around, right in the middle of the show, and watching other spectators watch the show. It’s just part of the magic of being there. For its 40th anniversary special episode, Saturday Night Live recently placed a 360º camera inside Studio 8H so that people with an android phone and Google Cardboard could watch Will Ferrell play Alex Trebek in “Celebrity Jeopardy” in VR. They could also turn around and scrutinize the cameramen or members of the audience, which included Michael Douglas, John Goodman, James Franco, Larry David, Tim Meadows, Dakota Johnson, and Sarah Palin. This sort of VR application really does add a dimension to SNL (and other live shows) that was previously reserved for people who were lucky enough to actually attend live sessions.
4. You can interact with people in an entirely new social network: AltspaceVR
Released just a few days ago, AltspaceVR lets you share and really interact with other people within virtual reality spaces. Whether you’re playing chess or sitting in a warm cabin in a virtual winter wonderland, this new platform lets you have shared experiences with people that may be thousands of miles away. Ultimately, the basis of friendship is the possibility of talking, having common experiences, playing together, and hanging out. AltspaceVR taps into that, and thus truly unleashes an enormous potential for VR socializing. This is still in its early stages, but it’s paving the way for a social network revolution.