Virtual reality is a computer-generated environment that lets you experience a different reality. A VR headset fits around your head and over your eyes, and visually separates you from whatever space you're physically occupying. Images are fed to your eyes from two small lenses. Through VR you can virtually hike the Grand Canyon, tour the Louvre, experience a movie as if you are part of it, and immerse yourself in a video game without leaving your couch.
VR comes in a few different forms. There's the cheap headset that works with your phone and there's the much more expensive option that requires a powerful PC or gaming console and some space to move around. Whichever path you choose, here are your best options.
The easiest and cheapest way to try virtual reality, Google Cardboard is just a piece of folded cardboard with some cheap embedded lenses. When you stick your phone inside and press it up to your face, you can feel like you’re in another world.
The best smartphone-based VR headset (for now), Samsung’s Gear VR costs just $99 (£80, AU$159) — assuming you already have a recent Samsung phone. It has more sophisticated sensors than Google Cardboard and is relatively comfortable to wear. Plus it’s got a decent library of purpose-built apps and games.
The $599 Oculus Rift (£499, AU$649) is far more immersive than strapping a phone to your face. It tracks your head in all directions, so you can lean in and get right up close to virtual objects. The catch: It requires a powerful gaming PC to generate its graphics, along with a tether leading up to your head.
The ultimate VR experience — for now — the $799 (£689) HTC Vive lets you reach out and grab objects in virtual reality, and even walk around a room. Again, you are tethered to a powerful gaming PC, plus you need to clear your living-room-furniture and plug in loads of cables to fulfill your holodeck dreams.
The affordable alternative to an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, the $399 Sony PlayStation VR (£349, AU$550) will let you grab things in VR without requiring a pricy gaming PC as intermediary. Instead, it works with the PlayStation 4 console that you might already own. Just know you’ll need to add controllers, and you shouldn’t expect the graphics to be quite as good as those of the Oculus or Vive.
Virtual reality isn't just a viewmaster for your video games. It's an entirely new medium whose true purpose is slowly being realized. Here are a few of the ways VR will be used over the next few years.
From films made by Hollywood to live-streamed concerts and theatrical experiences, VR has become a place to view videos that surround you. New cameras are being created to capture these VR stories, and tools to upload and livestream them are growing in number. Soon, these experiences might not even seem like films at all.
Artistry & design
Imagine building a real home with virtual tools, or designing parts for a new car as if it already existed in the real world. Imagine painting a 3D masterpiece while collaborating with friends around the globe. Apps and wand-like controllers are already making VR an amazing playground. Soon enough, these tools could become indispensable for a new generation of 3D design.
Obviously, video games are one of the main applications for virtual reality as of today. But VR will give game designers the freedom to take games to incredible new places. They can also find new audiences now that players can just reach out and touch things, and turn their head to look, instead of mastering a complex controller covered with joysticks and buttons.
Education & simulation
Medicine, chemistry, physics, astronomy: VR can model the world in an incredibly visual way. And, it can also allow those worlds to be expanded and shrunk, played with and entered. Students could take a class trip to ancient Egypt, or try an open-heart surgery without any risks: VR simulations can offer practice runs at techniques, designs and ideas.
Tourism & exploration
Virtual tourism is the next best thing to being there. You could visit Paris, Mars, or the bottom of the ocean. Whether you’re watching a 360-degree video someone shot, or a computationally generated 3D simulation, you can shut out the real world and replace it with your destination of choice. One day, you may be able to explore your own memories as well — imagine recording them with a 360-degree camera, then looking around to see what you missed in the moment.
Psychology & meditation
VR can become a private space for your mind — a place to relax and think. Or it can be a place to explore something uncomfortable in a protective simulation. Virtual worlds can be very removed from the real world, or be labs to explore human behavior. Studies have shown that VR is so distracting, it can be a surprisingly effective painkiller compared with traditional medicine.
Real estate & shopping
Imagine being able to tour a prospective home from miles away, walking right through the property as if you were there. Imagine placing life-size models of your own furniture into that house, to see if they fit. Now imagine walking into a virtual clothing store with infinite shelf space, where you can see and try any shirt, blouse or pair of shoes on sale. Shopping will never be the same.
Social & telepresence
Just because you’re inside a headset doesn’t mean you’re alone. You could jump into a video game avatar to chat and play, or commute to work by inhabiting a telepresence robot with cameras mounted on its body. Can we connect and meaningfully communicate across distances that way? It’s not clear, but developers are already experimenting with the possibilities.