The release of Google Cardboard last year gave a lot of us an early taste of the "nearly here" world of virtual reality. But early content offerings were, to be blunt, pretty underwhelming.
To be fair, Google Cardboard (GC) was only ever meant for developers and was not released as a consumer product. That hasn't stopped developers, and manufacturers, from getting on board early and producing and distributing content. And for those who gave up on the scant early offerings, or haven't tried it yet, the news is good. VR content suitable for GC has expanded, and there is now some content genuinely worthy of downloading. The headsets have improved too. No longer are you stuck with just a cardboard option that you need to hold to your face.
Even more, Google announced in early November that not only can you use your headset and phone to view specific VR content, but by using the new theatre mode, you can watch YouTube content in your virtual theatre. Exciting times indeed!
Elsewhere, though, wading through available GC content can be a bit hit and miss. So we've done the hard yards to pick out some of our favorite – free – VR experiences for GC. Because it's an early development platform, it's hard to recommend shelling out your hard earned cash for these kind of apps, but the freebies can be fun.
None of these are likely to be a patch on what some of the emerging headsets are offering (Oculus Rift, Samsung, Sony, HTC, etc.), but they're free, available now and accessible to a pretty broad spectrum of smart phone owners. They're also mostly demos or teasers with the promise of more to come, but many work on multiple VR platforms, including GC. So let's get started.
Music and movies
Although it's only one song (a cracking version of Live and Let Die recorded at Candlestick Park in 2014) Paul McCartney (By Jaunt) gives a serious glimpse at the potential future of entertainment. Starting out on stage sitting next to the former Beatle, you're then teleported to the front of stage to watch a spectacular pyrotechnics display, before returning to stage to finish the song with Sir Paul. A genuinely immersive experience, recorded on 360 degree camera rig and with 3D sound. Headphones are recommended, but not essential.
Jack White Third-D is another Jaunt production along the lines of the Paul McCarney experience. Except this one offers three tunes to watch. Some of the settings are really quite beautiful and if you're a fan of the music, well worth downloading.
Another content developer, VRSE , offers a growing umbrella of content which might show a glimpse into the future of movies and watchable VR. Currently there are about half a dozen high quality clips, ranging from an on-set Seinfeld experience, some documentary material and a couple of beautifully rendered short films. You need to download the clips from within the app, so start there. In all of our trawling of apps, this one provided one of the most polished VR experiences for CG.
A highlight, called Evolution of The Universe, is a surreal journey from a Canadian lake swamped by birds (or butterflies) which transform into colorful streamers swirling around the lake before the viewer rises high above the scene and into a whole other world, with a bit of a 2001 A Space Odyssey feel to it. If we say more, we'll spoil the surprise. Ironically, the computer generated world is more realistic than a lot of VR video content shot in the real world. If you have it all set up right, be prepared to hear some gasps of amazement from those trying it for the first time.
The other compelling film is Clouds Over Sidra. It's a beautiful and simply told glimpse into the life at the Zaatari Refugee Camp – home to 130,000 Syrians fleeing the worst of what humanity has to offer. It's actually quite a moving video and, despite a few rough edges around the technical production, is a compelling few minutes of viewing. Narrated by a young girl in a refugee camp, it's a mini virtual reality documentary which highlights, among other things, how privileged many of us are to be living in first world countries.
Global mega-band U2 have also made an appearance for VRSE with Song For Someone. The app describes the venture between creator Chris Milk, Apple and Bono's band as a "revolutionary new visual interpretation" of U2's song of the same name. And it is. It's one of the smaller downloads in the VRSE suite, but still 500 MB, and well worth the time downloading. It begins with the viewer sitting in the middle of the band as they start performing before they fade away and musicians from all around the world take over the performance. It's a joint venture between the band, Apple and VRSE - and a pretty compelling one at that.
There are a handful more clips in this app, but the one I'm looking forward to most has been "coming soon" for quite a while now. It's called Catatonic and promises an "immersive journey through an insane asylum in which the audience, bound to a wheelchair, undergoes a sensory shocking horror experience." The teaser suggests it as adult viewing only … so keep the kiddies away from this one.
Fun park rides
There are numerous roller coaster/fun park ride simulations, which achieve varying degrees of success. A couple worth checking out are: Roller Coaster VR (by Fubrum and set on a tropical island) and Dive City Rollercoaster (by Durovis). For me, though, the pick of them is a modern take on the old fashioned ride called Cosmic Rollercoaster (by Raiz). Mixing the obvious roller coaster experience with an interstellar twist, this is a high speed ride through some kind of worm hole and is a genuinely interesting experience. You pass by some of the major planets – including earth – with the virtual carriage slowing down as you pass by each feature so you can take it all in. Towards the end of the ride, everything gets faster and you can get quite a sensation of speed.
Speaking of rides, Crazy Swing VR (by FIBRUM) is a virtual ride on a swing. But not an ordinary swing. This one is tall. Really tall. And, unlike the swings you're used to at the local playground or park, it goes all the way around. It's a basic ride, but good fun nonetheless.
For something that still has a thrill but a tiny bit more peaceful, Hang Gliding (by i-mmersive) straps you underneath a hang glider and lets you swoop over snowy mountain tops and, if you're game, try loops and other tricks. Using a Samsung Note 3, we found it a bit too clunky and graphics heavy to provide a seamless experience, but with a more powerful device the app shows promise to provide more than a few minutes of fun.
The final frontier
Space is a natural playground for virtual reality programmers, and there are quite a few experiences out there to be had.
Refugio 3D Space Station (by Claudio Panzanaro REFUGIO 3D) puts you inside a space station in deep space above the planet "Refugio". With a glass floor, viewing windows, a compelling soundtrack and an auto walk feature, it's a fun place to spend a few minutes.
There are a handful of other space apps worth checking out, such as DebrisDefrag (by Limecolor) where you can shoot bits of space rock from the sky (magnetic tag or bluetooth trigger/gamepad recommended), the above mentioned Cosmic Rollercoaster and a more complete game in Galaxy VR (by Silicon Droid). Galaxy VR is a demo of a game in development. It requires a game pad/controller to use properly and is essentially a space flight simulator mixed with an arcade style shooter. The full version, when it's released, could be well worth a look. The demo is very limited, but fun nonetheless, even though it can be a bit buggy from time to time.
The horror, the horror
If you're a fan of horror, try out Sisters (by Otherworld Interactive) or Chair in a Room (by Ryan Bousfield). They're designed to scare you. There's not a lot of interactivity, but in the right place and time, they can give you a genuine fright. Personally, I found them a bit long and slow, but a few people we tested them on (albeit self confessed "scaredy cats") found them too frightening to see through until the end. Chair In A Room requires a fair bit of processing power, so make sure you have a good device before downloading or you might be disappointed. Halls Of Fear (by Pernsteiner Software), where the player walks through a virtual world collecting "cubes" and trying to stay alive, is also worth checking out. It's another developing demo (meaning there's a few bugs) and requires a Bluetooth controller to operate properly.
Many of the above apps provide passive experiences. That is, the user simply watches and looks around as the app runs through it's paces. But there are some slightly more interactive experiences out there, such as Swivel Gun! VR Log Ride (by Pixels of Eight). You'll need a Bluetooth controller or a keyboard/joystick device to operate many of these. Swivel Gun is another roller coaster, but the carriage is fitted with a cannon and the aim of the game is to shoot as many barrels as you can while going through the usual rollercoaster motions. The cannon is aimed wherever the user looks, and is trigged by a button on your Bluetooth controller or the magnetic ring on your GC set. It's not particularly challenging, but is good fun and adds another dimension. At the very least, this "ride" helps you imagine the potential of interactive VR gaming experiences of the future.
For the younger GC early adopters, there's a growing range of content designed to appeal.
Lamper Cardboard: First Flight (by Archiact Interactive Ltd) is another interactive game, but without the need for a controller. The interface is a little clunky, but once you get the hang of it, it's entirely navigable and playable. It's probably one more suited to those already comfortable with video games and has a kind of "Mario" feel about it. In this case you're traveling through the eyes of a firefly bug in a giant world and turning your head to change direction and avoid obstacles on the way.
JurrasicLand (by Vr-neosun) is another worth checking out. In this one, you're in an open top jeep type vehicle and, once let through the gates of JurassicLand, get to mingle with some dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. There's a T-Rex and a few others to get up close to, and the promise of new "virtual parks" opening soon. Just watch out for the in-app purchases.
In Rocket Drop VR (by Sc0ttgames), you're a skydiver with a jet pack. The jet pack allows you to fly in limited squirts, all the while dodging missiles and collecting more crucial fuel pellets for your jet pack.
Finally, bold graphics and a quirky sound track make Froggy VR (by FIBRUM) an interesting experience. It's another app where you're a small animal in a giant world. It allows in-app purchases as well, though, so be warned. Other than that, it's harmless fun with nice graphics and a cute overall look and feel.
On the subject of in-app purchases, it's difficult to recommend spending any additional money on these apps at this early stage. As with all apps, be sure to check out the detail in the Google Play store before downloading. They all say clearly if in-app purchases are available or not, so if you're not a fan, you can easily avoid them altogether.
Art and culture, anybody?
Orbulus (by VRCraftworks Ltd) is a modern-day take on an art gallery ... in virtual reality. This app is a collection of (360 degree) still images with immersive sound from different scenes and places around the globe, and indeed the universe. That may sound dull compared with the video and CG based apps, but it's surprisingly compelling and there is quite a lot of content. You can see a view of fireworks on Hong Kong Harbor, check out some of the beautiful beaches in Australia, or sit on Mars and take in the view. And that's hardly scratching the surface, with content is growing all of the time. The interface takes a little getting used to, but be patient and you'll get the hang of it. Once you do, you'll be glad you did.
War of Words VR (by Burrell Durrant Hifle) is another app with a more sophisticated touch. Indeed, although it's very short, the imagination runs wild as to the possibilities of VR storytelling after watching this one. It's basically an animated reading of Siegfried Sassoon's poem The Kiss. The VR element genuinely adds to the impact of the poem and shows great promise for an entirely different way to meld this new technology with good, old fashioned poetry, words and passion. Highly recommended and probably one you'll want to view more than once.
Let's not forget headsets. If you like the idea of something a bit fancier than a cardboard cutout that you need to hold to your face, it may be worth checking out some of the relatively cheap plastic alternatives. Now none of them are official all have compromises, but they might prove more comfortable and user friendly than the cardboard.
Of course, if all you have is cardboard, that will be just fine. One drawback is many of the non-cardboard headsets do not come with the "trigger" that the cardboard unit has, which limits some apps where a Bluetooth gamepad or controller comes into play.
Things to look for are comfort and lens quality, as well as the ability to move the lenses back and forward (to correct different eyesight/focus issues) and the ability to move them left and right to get the stereoscopic effect right. And don't be tempted to spend more than about $US10-$US50 for a set.
If you want something really awesome and an even more immersive experience, you're better to go for one the full blown commercial headsets that are heading our way over the coming months and years.