I’ve tried a few virtual reality (VR) experiences over the years, from headsets to full-motion simulators seating a dozen people. All had struck me as fun, but none had tempted me to invest in my own kit.
But let’s face it, actual reality isn’t much cop at present, so if there ever were a time to dip a toe into the virtual variety, this has got to be it, right … ?
What is virtual reality?
VR is a computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional world. At the high end, there are full-motion flight simulators so realistic that pilots can be certified to fly a new aircraft type without ever having set foot in the real thing. At the low end are a range of consumer headsets designed for gaming and entertainment.
What can you do with it?
A bunch of things, but I’d say the main ones fall into five categories, even if they can blur together somewhat:
- 360 degree video experiences
- Passive simulators
- Active simulators
- Social meetings
360-degree video experiences
Someone uses a 360-degree camera to film an experience, for example riding a roller-coaster or skydiving or a lap of a circuit in an F1 car. You then view the video through the headset. You can’t control anything, as it’s just playing a video, but you can look around in any direction at any point, which gives a surprisingly realistic experience. Technically, this isn’t really virtual reality since it lacks the ‘computer-generated’ bit, but most people consider this to be VR.
The same idea, but this time everything is computer-generated graphics. So, you can still ride your roller-coaster, for example, but this time it might be on the moon or have tracks with gaps you jump or … well, the developer’s imagination is the limit.
The same thing, but instead of just experiencing something, you control it. Obvious examples are flight and driving simulators, where you fly the plane or drive the car. They range from very basic to somewhat more realistic. More on this shortly.
Essentially smartphone-style games, but in a 3D world. These range from the cartoon-ish to the semi-realistic. I said that there’s overlap between the categories, and a good example here would be a fighter jet game, which is part-simulator and part-game.
Simulated environments in which you meet real people: other people using the same app with their headsets. You and everyone else you meet is a computer-generated graphic, but you can have real conversations with real people.
What are your VR options?
Assuming you don’t want to spend a five-figure sum on a full-motion simulator, you’re looking at a VR headset. There are two main types:
- Ones you connect to a PC
The first category are massively more convenient, but are limited in their power as they are essentially powered by a built-in Android smartphone. For example, a flight simulator will offer a plane that gives you all the primary flight controls as well as a bunch of switches, but the flight physics are crude.
If you want maximum realism, then you need a tethered headset and a powerful PC. This can get you games with incredibly detailed graphics, and very realistic simulators – but you need a wired connection to a PC, which you’ll probably end up upgrading or replacing to meet the demands of the most sophisticated apps.
I’m just dipping a toe in the virtual water, so I wanted a standalone unit.
Why the Oculus Go?
The two market leaders in standalone headsets are both from Oculus: the Go at £189 and the Quest at £499 (both prices for the higher storage tier, as the entry-level models would soon become frustrating).
The Go has what’s technically known as three degrees of movement. In plain English, it can tell which way you are facing (it can track your movement as you turn around on the spot), and it can tell which way you are looking (head up/down and left/right).
The Quest has six degrees of movement: in addition to the above, it can detect if you crouch down or stand up, and can also track your movement as you walk in any direction. It also has sophisticated dual controllers for your hands.
Between the Go and the Quest, it was purely a matter of price: I wasn’t sure how much I’d get into it, and £500 is more than I’m willing to pay for an experiment. It comes with a basic but adequate controller, with a pointer, trackpad and three buttons.
So far, the Go is looking like the right call. It’s fun, and I’ve used it a lot in the first few days, but I don’t see myself getting hooked. I could be wrong, of course, and if I am I’ll sell it and buy the Quest.
I’m not that taken with 360-degree video experiences as they are one-offs: as it’s essentially the same experience each time (albeit you could look in different directions), so only make sense if they are free. More on pricing in a moment.
I’ve never been much of a gamer. So far, I’ve spent most of my time in simulators – a mixture of passive (mostly roller-coasters …) and active (primarily flight simulators).
Although the Oculus Go itself is reasonably affordable at £189, there are then apps – which is where the true cost can ramp up rather quickly.
There are three issues here. First, the truly free apps generally fall into the ‘get what you pay for’ category.
Second, most of the apps which claim to be free are in fact freemium: you get limited content or time for free, then have to pay for more. For example, you might get a roller-coaster app that offers one ride for free, but charges for others. The individual costs are low – usually 79p – but if you have an app with twenty optional experiences at 79p each, you can see how things could get expensive fast.
Third, the paid apps can be surprisingly expensive. Seven or eight quid isn’t unusual, so again costs can ramp up quickly.
Here are the ones I’ve enjoyed so far:
- Rilix Coaster (the best roller-coaster I’ve found)
- Coaster (a tame ride, but absolutely stunning scenery in the space one)
- Face Your Fears (fun!)
- Shooting Showdown 2 (target shooting, playing against strangers)
- Flight Unlimited (the best flight simulator I’ve found)
- Flying Aces: Navy Pilot Simulator (very basic but quite fun)
- AltspaceVR (meet real people in a virtual world)
AltspaceVR is really its own little world, with lots of events. You can attend presentations, take part in discussions or just wander around and chat to people. The latter option isn’t that interesting as it mostly seems to be teenagers. I’ve only dipped into it so far, but I’ll definitely try some of the discussions.
There are also VR gigs, which sound fun, but I haven’t yet tried one.
Some apps sound like they would be great but aren’t, of which International Space Station Tour tops the list. It’s really crude, and not that different to a basic video tour.
I don’t think I’m going to get hooked, but it is fun. If £189 plus say £30-40 for a bunch of apps falls within your budget for something amusing but not amazing, I’d say go for it.