A foray into virtual reality

Some of you have heard me talking giddily about virtual reality and augmented reality. For those who are curious about the difference, here’s an interesting article. Essentially, virtual reality aims to provide a fully immersive experience for the user, usually via a headset. Augmented reality enhances or adds elements on top of our own reality, usually through mobile devices.

I have so little experience with the field, yet I am utterly fascinated. When Pokemon Go came out a few months ago, I grew obsessed with its augmented reality game, even though I had never been a Pokemon fan. Just using my iPhone, I could catch bizarre-looking creatures on the way to the liquor store! I could engage in battles down the street from my apartment! The fact that, at the time, everyone else was playing too, made it feel like I was part of a whole new world.

Yesterday, I dropped in on a virtual reality hackathon (Reality, Virtually, Hackathon!) hosted by the MIT Media Lab. I’d intended to attend the hackathon for the whole weekend, but ran out of time. While I wasn’t part of a team, I did get to walk around, peek over people’s shoulders, and talk to the vendors who attended. I also tried Soylent (verdict: Eww), grabbed a slice of pizza for lunch, and, most importantly, had my first-ever VR experience.

“Here, try this.” A SpaceoutVR rep handed me a gigantic headset so I could play a game called Headbangerz. I ogled the headset for a moment, then put it on. Before I knew it, I was flying through a computer-generated tunnel, music blaring in my ears and a number of colored shapes flying towards me. Using a gaze pointer, I made each of the shapes explode with a cute little flash before they reached me.

Taking off the headset, I blinked for a few moments as I returned back to my own world. I was hooked. I asked the rep if I could purchase one of the Google Cardboard viewers he had laid out on his table. He told me that they are typically $10, but, as a lucky hackathon attendee, I could get one for free.

If you’re not familiar with Google Cardboard, it’s a simple cardboard viewer that uses a mobile device (iPhone or Android) to provide virtual reality experiences. It’s literally so simple you can make your own cardboard viewer using everyday materials and the instructions here. All you need are cardboard, lenses, magnets, velcro, and perhaps a rubber band to hold your phone in place.

The most valuable thing I learned yesterday is that virtual reality, while it’s probably one of the most newfangled technologies out there, is also incredibly accessible. There are currently TONS of free or cheap mobile apps available for use with Google Cardboard. Here are the ones I’ve tried since bringing my Google Cardboard home last night:

Cardboard: Meant to introduce users to Google Cardboard and provide demos of short VR experiences. Here’s what its App Store page says about the most recent version of the app: “Get a taste of what’s possible in VR with the brand new ‘Arctic Journey’ demo: fly alongside Arctic terns, plant a field of flowers, relax under a sky full of stars and more.”

Spaceout.VR: A music-centered app that contains a rhythm-based game called Headbangerz (described above). Super fun.

Within: Provides high-quality VR movies that have a journalistic angle. Want to learn about the history of immigrants in New York City? Explore an endangered coral reef? Visit a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan? This is your app. Within also provides a virtual reality montage (presented at the 2016 TED Conference) which I highly recommend.

Sisters: In the mood for Halloween? Check out either the Blair Witch VR teaser or the “Sisters” ghost story included in this app. I took in the Blair Witch teaser for about 2 minutes before I had to close the app. What can I say? It was scary!!

Google Street View: Last night, I sat under the cherry blossoms in Tokyo, Japan; stood in the center of the snowy University of Maryland quad in College Park; and gazed out on the Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland, all using the Google Cardboard view in this app. So awesome.

I am having a LOT of fun with VR so far, and I’m planning to try making my own 360 degree photos and videos for use with my Google Cardboard. I’ve also been reading up on how to create my own VR apps. Stay tuned…

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