Beginner's guide to virtual reality

How to start with VR without spending a ton of money

Keith Shaw VR primary image artwork
Stephen Sauer

When you see a virtual reality game being advertised on a box of Froot Loops, you know the VR trend has hit the mainstream. 

Let me back up -- while shopping for groceries, my son spotted a Captain America: Civil War advertisement on the cereal box. Thinking it was a toy, I looked at the back and saw that Kellogg’s was promoting the new movie by offering a virtual reality game app, as well as a Google Cardboard-like viewer (as long as you bought about six or so more boxes of cereal).

Fortunately, the app was free and there were other options for experiencing the game without having to purchase more Froot Loops.

MORE: Virtual reality no longer just a hobby for these Cisco employees

The VR revolution on a larger scale is happening with devices like the Oculus Rift, the Samsung Gear VR, the HTC Vive and upcoming devices from Microsoft (the HoloLens) and Sony (PlayStation VR). However, these devices are more gaming focused, and cost hundreds of dollars to experience. For many people, experiencing VR needs to cost less and, fortunately, it does.

It all starts with Google Cardboard -- the “experiment” in VR. It creates a VR viewer literally out of cardboard to create a ViewMaster-like experience for the viewer, along with a smartphone that has VR apps on them. When Google came out with the original Cardboard app and viewer, many people (including me) felt it was a stunt or gimmick; nothing good can come from cardboard, right?

This was one case where I was wrong, and we’ve seen the development of VR apps for both Android and iOS smartphones. In addition, people have developed sturdier hardware that has gone beyond the original cardboard creations.

If you have wanted to experience VR without shelling out a chunk of your disposable income, there are plenty of options available. Here are my favorites.

(Editor’s note: We’re assuming that you already have a smartphone for this. Most viewers work with 4- to 6-inch smartphone models; larger screen devices such as the iPhone 6S Plus or Samsung Galaxy Note may have some difficulties, but a lot of it is trial-and-error.) 

The original Cardboard (or a duplicate)

While you can jump into VR with the other hardware, it’s still beneficial to try the Google Cardboard viewer at least once. Head to the Google Cardboard VR page, which includes options for viewers as well as some apps to get you started. 

Google Cardboard VR

You can buy the original for $15 directly from Google, or choose one of their other options. For this guide, we headed to Amazon.com, where you can buy other Cardboard-style viewers. We chose the Google Cardboard Kit by D-scope Pro ($16.99 with Amazon Prime), which also included a Velcro strap. The New York Times, which has its own VR app, has also sent subscribers a Cardboard viewer of their own, so you can get one this way as well. 

Also, make sure that the Cardboard viewer you get includes a "button." VR apps usually fall into two camps: Ones that create a viewing experience where you look at pictures or watch videos, and ones that require interaction through menu items that you need to select via a button. The original Cardboard viewer has a button (our D-Pro viewer also had one), but some viewers we tried did not, which limited the apps we could use to only the picture/video viewing type.

There are some downsides with the Cardboard viewer route. First, constructing the device may take a few attempts before you get something that’s usable. There’s a bunch of folding and fitting things into slots, and some Velcro as well. I never excelled at arts-and-crafts in school or at camp, so this could be my abilities that are being questioned. In the end, I used some tape to secure certain parts of the viewer to make it sturdy.

Second, the addition of the Velcro strap to make it a "hands-free" viewer didn’t really help -- it turns out cardboard on your nose isn’t very comfortable. If you’re looking to go hands-free, there are better options.

Grade: 3 stars (out of five)

Trying for a more comfortable fit

With the Cardboard viewer constructed, I also wanted to try something that would be more comfortable to use, with the possibility of going completely hands-free for some of the VR games that require button interaction.

WOWTech Cardboard VR viewer

In this case, we tested the WowTech VR Headset VR Box V3.0 Goggles (at the time, it cost us $33.99, but now it costs $69.99). The original appeal was that this included a Bluetooth controller that looks like a Wii remote, which would enable us to go hands-free and still use a button for apps that required interaction. It also includes adjustable sliders that move the lenses around to help create a better focal point for many of the apps. This action reminds me of when I go to the eye doctor and they offer two different lens choices and you have to pick which one looks better. The adjustments on this viewer might help a little bit, but it didn’t make a major difference (configuring whatever app you’re using to the specific device works best).

The viewer was a lot more comfortable than the Cardboard-style viewers, as it includes a foam cushion for where you put your eyes and nose, and an adjustable headstrap lets you create the perfect fit that goes over your head. Unfortunately, the Bluetooth controller didn’t work with our iPhone 6S, and it won’t work with any of the Google Cardboard VR apps. Even on the Android phone, the controller didn’t work with any of our apps.

There’s also not a lot of instructions that come with this viewer, and those that do are written in Chinese with not-so-perfect translations. For example, the battery case for the controller claimed that you needed AA batteries, when in fact you need AAA.

Grade: 2 stars

Speck PocketVR Speck

A phone case and VR viewer

We also got a sample of the Pocket VR viewer from Speck ($69.95 via Prime). The phone case manufacturer combines its Candy Shell GRIP case with a cool VR viewer that you can build. Two plastic pieces slide out from its eyepieces, and it’s held together with sturdy elastic straps that let you adjust to the size of your phone. It’s a lot sturdier than the Cardboard viewer, and the slide-out plastic helps protect the eye lens parts. On the downside, the $70 price tag might be too high for a viewer app (considering the less expensive options out there), but on the plus side you get a very nice phone case. Also, this one doesn’t have a button, so you’re limited to the picture-and-video viewing apps (fortunately, the Kellogg’s Captain America game doesn’t require a button). 

Grade: 4 stars if you’re in the market for a case as well, and don’t mind non-interactive VR content; 2 stars if you’re looking for a VR experience that includes interactivity.

View-Master VR View-Master

A ‘kid’ VR viewer that adults will love

After a few disappointing experiences with viewers, we finally found one that we love – the View-Master Virtual Reality Starter Pack ($16.79 via Amazon Prime). Not only will this bring you back to the days of using those circular disks, but the solid plastic case will keep it working when you hand it off to your kids.

The starter pack comes with a sample of the View-Master offerings. Like the original View-Master, you can purchase additional discs, which are basically augmented reality keys that unlock the content on the VR apps. In other words, you can download the View-Master Experience apps for free, but you have to pay to unlock the content (either through buying one of these packs or just paying Apple and Google through their App Store). The different ways of paying for the additional content is a bit weird, but as long as you have either the disc or the paid app, you’re fine.

We tried out the Space Experience ($7.75 via Prime), which gave us access to three themes – we could learn about the solar system, spaceships or view a star map. Each area provides children with information about the particular object, and it’s interesting for a while (educational! Run!).

The best part of this viewer, though, is that it works with all of the other Cardboard VR apps on your phone. You’ll likely ditch the discs and just use the viewer, as it’s easy to load/unload your phone into the viewer, and the lever (which in the old days would advance the View-Master disc) acts as the interactive button. We used this viewer with our iPhone 6S and Samsung Galaxy S6 edge+ phone without any problems.

This viewer doesn’t have a strap, so you will have to hold your hands up to experience the VR – after a while this can get tiring, but that’s the only real downside – it’s a fantastic VR viewer and our go-to option.

Grade: 5 stars

See below for a video where we showed off some of the Cardboard Hardware:

Next steps: VR apps

Once you’ve found the viewer you want to use, it’s time to experience some VR apps. Like regular smartphone apps, the mountain of VR apps is filled with gold nuggets and lots of dirt. Fortunately, most of the apps are free, so if you get a dud you can quickly delete it from your phone. Most of these are available for iOS and Android devices – if they’re specific to one phone you can always find something similar on the app store for that particular OS.

The first app you should get is the Google Cardboard app itself. Opening the app gives you a bunch of demos as well as other apps to consider trying. It runs you through a tutorial that explains the basics (turn here, click the button, etc.), but also shows you different styles of app (the viewer, the movie, the ‘game’). The Kaleidoscope feature within the app (in the iOS version) is also very trippy. This app is the one you’ll want to open when you’re evangelizing VR to non-VR users.

The New York Times VR app is another must-get. It showcases how many media companies will likely use VR as a storytelling component to their articles, photos and videos.

Another good use of VR and video is Vrse -- it compiles a list of VR videos for you to peruse (it also includes a lot of the New York Times pieces). Be sure to watch the “SNL40 Celebrity Jeopardy” skit in VR. A word of warning – several of the videos need to be downloaded, and they can be quite large – so make sure you have enough space to store them.

If you want to experience viewing different locations around the world, check out the Google Street View VR app – it offers a VR view of different popular attractions and locations from around the world, but also lets users upload their own photos – taken with spherical cameras (which offer 360-degree and VR-style imagery) or even with a smartphone (panoramic view option).

Speaking of cameras, if you have an Android phone you should definitely download Cardboard Camera -- this lets you create panoramic photos that you can see in the VR viewer – it’s pretty amazing to shoot an image that offers cool depth.

Another city-specific app I like is the New York VR app – it picks popular sites around the city and presents them in VR space – looking down from the top of a building so you can see the skyline or smack-dab in the middle of Times Square are among my favorites.

When developers were showing off the Oculus Rift, they used an app that gave viewers a tour of Tuscany – with your smartphone, you can download the same tour. Type in Tuscany VR in either the Google Play or iOS App Store and you’ll find a version of this tour. Even grandmas love it!

 

Virtual Reality Moon for Google Cardboard VR lets you take a VR trip on the surface of the moon – clicking the button takes a step forward, or you can hold the button down and move forward over the lunar landscape. Look up and you can see the Earth and the Sun off in the distance.

If you want to go beyond the moon, check out Titans of Space (Android), which gives you a virtual tour of the solar system (there are tons of other educational VR space tours, too, including the View-Master Space Experience disc).

Another popular VR app involves riding a virtual roller coaster. Just type in “Roller Coaster VR” into the app store and pick one to ride along with. My experience with a lot of these apps – some may give you motion sickness – so be careful and don’t move your head too much. But if you love coasters, you have to give some of these a try.

OK, now it’s time to play some games. The previously mentioned Captain America: CivilWar VR app lets you play as either Captain America or Iron Man from the Marvel comics/movies to fight off would-be attackers. The game doesn’t require a button, you just aim the reticule with your head and the game will fire weapons or punch for you.

Space games seem ripe for VR opportunities, since there’s not really an up or down when you’re in space. Check out Deep Space VR, a game in which you’re flying in the cockpit of a space fighter and have to fight off waves of incoming enemies.

Horror games are also ripe for the VR experience. The biggest experience in the Cardboard space is Sisters, an experience that made two colleagues jump and gasp during their session with the app. Type in "Horror VR" for other chilling experiences.

Random observations on VR

Using VR does take some time and practice – after using many of the apps, I did feel some slight nausea – meaning that you don’t want to use these apps for significant periods of time. I also ended up swiveling in my chair a lot to get the 360-degree footage, and wearing these devices on your head (either hands-free or by holding them) made me look goofy as co-workers walked by.

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