The Current Reality of Virtual Reality

The media world was buzzing this weekend as The New York Times jumped into a new dimension. The company gave out Google Cardboard virtual reality viewers to its home subscribers and pointed them to the new NYT VR smartphone app for Android or iOS to see special videos that accompanied certain stories in the Times Magazine.

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As with other virtual-reality systems, once an Android phone or iPhone was placed in the back of the cardboard contraption and the required content downloaded, the user got a much more immersive experience than watching a 2D clip because  the whole thing had a panoramic feel to it. (Shooting a film in virtual reality can be technically challenging as well, but viewing one puts you in the middle of the action; the How Stuff Works site has a good explanation of the virtual-reality experience.) The NYT website helpfully included a frequently asked questions page for users new to the VR scene, as well as a video showing how to fold together the Cardboard viewer.

The Times got a lot of buzz for busting the move, but virtual reality has popping up all over the past year. On the high end of the spectrum, the new Facebook-owned Oculus Rift virtual reality system has been kicking around for years and is scheduled to finally make a commercial debut early next year. The $99 Samsung Gear VR system, (shown below) also powered by Oculus technology, is now available for pre-orders and works with Samsung’s newer Galaxy devices; older Samsung VR headsets are also around. Microsoft’s HoloLens system, which is advertised more as an augmented reality system as opposed to virtual reality, may also jump into the mix when it officially rolls into town next year.

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So, what do you need to see the new virtual reality? You need a virtual-reality app that can display the videos on the appropriate format. To get the most of the experience, you also need a Cardboard-style viewer and a pair of headphones to immerse yourself in the audio. These range in price online from about $4 up to $30 for the sturdier, fancier models that look less like pieces of a packing box and more like sophisticated binoculars.

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And, along with the hardware, you need content to look at. The Google Cardboard site has a list of VR apps that work with the viewer. But much more content is coming or is already here. The Wall Street Journal announced last week that it, too, was adding virtual reality content to its video app. Facebook is said to be developing its own virtual reality videos app and YouTube’s blog just announced last week that the site had added support for VR, including a The Hunger Games Virtual Reality Experience, (shown above), a trailer from the Apollo 11 mission and many others.

If you don’t have the viewer, you can also watch some videos in standard mode on muse smartphones or in a desktop browser. While you can just turn your head to get a panoramic view with a viewer, you can usually drag your finger or mouse around the frame to see more of the surroundings on the home screen or video window.

Is VR the future or just a fad? Time will tell, but people are testing out the format in all sorts of places. Last month’s Democratic debate on CNN even had a virtual reality version, although viewer response to the experiment was mixed. Some things, after all, may be better off in their own reality.

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