Virtual reality has primarily been a gamer's domain, but proponents say it is poised for expansion into our work, social lives and education. Today, mobile VR offers the most accessible glimpse into that future. Learn a thing or two from these leading Gear VR experiences, and while you're at it, ascertain a few things about the state of the industry.
Titans of Space
This solar-system explorer is one of the earliest and most popular pieces of educational Gear VR content. Visually, it's more like walking through a classroom model than going on an intergalactic thrill ride, but it's a good entry point for kids or VR rookies. Learn facts about the planets and their moons while cruising through a to-scale depiction of our solar system.
It's also a good introduction to the types of learning most easily adapted to VR. Watch this, and it's easy to see how things like size, spatial relationships and orientation may best be taught in a VR environment. This is just the first of many science-class applications that are sure to follow.
Free from the Oculus store.
Notes on Blindness
Notes on Blindness screenshot: it's not a literal interpretation of blindness, but an expressive one
The term "experience" gets thrown around a lot when discussing VR. Notes on Blindness is a good example of why – it's not quite a video, it's not quite recreation, and it's not conventionally academic.
Notes interprets the audio journal of John Hull, a professor and theologian that documented his descent into blindness. The driver of this experience is Hull's poetic narration, in which he explores concepts like the illuminatingly acoustic properties of weather and the feeling of panic.
And while it seems strange to use a primarily visual piece of technology to express lack of sight – wouldn't it be more accurate just to use a blindfold? – I couldn't imagine a better medium for experiencing these observations. The evocative and immersive properties of VR make it the perfect extension of Hull's accounts.
For best results, use good headphones. Free.
Speech Center VR
Speech Center VR (free, with in-app purchases) was originally developed to combat one of the most pervasive fears in the Western world: public speaking. Now, it's a communication-centered education platform where you can practice speaking in the safety and privacy of your own home. Take professionally-led courses, tune into live presentations, or practice your pitch, pronunciation and pick-up lines (there's a male-geared course on how to "create attraction through words").
This platform needs more content to be truly impressive, but it's still a much-needed asset for building a specific skill. It also points to VR's applicability as a phobia-fighter and self-help resource.
House of Languages
House of Languages (US$4.99) is a gamified language-learning app for kids or anyone else who can handle its basic approach and cartoon graphics (though for some reason it is given a 13+ age rating in the Oculus Store).
A teddy bear host ushers you around its virtual home while you identify each object in the room, hear its name in your second language of choice, then repeat the word back. English, French, Spanish and German are all supported.
A little basic, perhaps, but it could be a way to brush up on your vocabulary or supplement your daily Duolingo exercises. Hopefully it will pave the way for much more intriguing and immersive language-learning VR apps.
You may have heard about the emergence of some exciting VR films and documentaries, but tracking them down can be a bit of a hassle. Within (free) puts a well-curated collection in one place.
Within has partnered with many big names in news and entertainment – Vice Media, New York Times and NBC to name a few – that keep the platform populated with plenty of high-quality content. There's a fairly impressive collection already, considering that the outlet is still very new.
Within content would certainly improve with higher resolution and better technology, but it does seem to have an especially exuberant feel in these nascent stages. Maybe that's because many of VR's early adopters, motivated by its storytelling potential, are indulging in creativity for creativity's sake.
Our recommendations? The SNL 40th anniversary special hosted by Jerry Seinfeld, for a light-hearted and star-studded view from behind the cue cards; LoVR, an immersive exploration of what happens on a biochemical level when you fall in love; any of the New York Times human interest stories.
While Within is primarily for films and documentaries, NextVR (free) is a one-stop source for news coverage and events. Watch live or recorded broadcasts of sporting events, presidential debates, concerts, and more. Due to low resolution, you won't believe you're actually there. But since the point of view is that of an attendee, not a production team, it does come close.
Most of NextVR's content has been in the form of live broadcasts, so for best results, check the latest NextVR news for an upcoming schedule of events.
More in VR
These tools, though valuable and promising, are limited in scope and utility. But, it's safe to expect a surge in quality VR content and continually improving hardware over the next couple of years. Hardware companies are investing in developers in a big way, who are in turn exploring VR's social, retail, self-help, and of course gaming applications.
New Atlas' VR coverage has more of the latest news in this burgeoning area.