What the hell is VR? A Beginner's Guide

Since we have launched our Indiegogo campaign for the VR project Fool VR, many of my family and some of my friends have posed the obvious question: What the hell is VR? 

It's true many out there have either not even heard of VR yet or have not had a chance to try it. And that is understandable; this thing called VR (Virtual Reality) is something very new! But it is something just like the cell phone that will all adapt to eventually. So I thought I should post a great article from the Wall Street Journal, which will help explain the basics, let you know what is required to experience it and will give you some great first pieces to immerse yourself in so you can get familiar with it until we can take you on the Virtual Reality journey of Fool VR.

ILLUSTRATION: EDA AKALTUN

ILLUSTRATION: EDA AKALTUN

via wallstreetjournal.com by NATHAN OLIVAREZ-GILES

VIRTUAL REALITY might seem like the stuff of science fiction, but if you’ve ever played with a ViewMaster, you already have a sense of what this technology is like. With the classic toy, you’d peer into the plastic viewer and see 3-D photographs of far away locales, ranging from cosmopolitan London to the African Savanna. Virtual reality—or VR—is similar but more immersive. A 3-D moving image fills more of your field of vision, and it’s interactive, not static: Turn your head to the left, and the entire view, say, of the Golden Gate Bridge, shifts so you can see what’s to the side. Do an about face, and your point-of-view spins to reveal what’s behind you.

Although this is all pretty high-tech, VR is going mainstream, fast. Last year, Facebook purchased the virtual-reality startup Oculus VR for $2 billion. And getting a taste of virtual reality no longer requires expensive equipment. In fact, all you need is a smartphone, a few key apps and one of the available special viewers, which start at just $25.

Most smartphone-driven VR viewers function exactly like a ViewMaster. As with those disc-shaped reels of yore, your smartphone slides right into the viewer. Most viewers don’t have any electronics inside; they simply take the image on your smartphone screen and split it to create a 3-D effect. Using your smartphone’s accelerometer, VR apps can tell which direction you’re looking and adjust the view accordingly.

All you need is a smartphone, a few key apps, and a virtual reality viewer, which start at just $25. 

The VR viewers fall into two categories. The first group are hand-held, like a ViewMaster. The others have straps and are meant to be worn like ski goggles. The former is perfect for short viewing experiences, the latter for exploring a virtual world at length. With either one, you might want to add a pair of Bluetooth wireless headphones to better hear audio from the apps.

Keep in mind that smartphone-driven VR is essentially the shallow end of the virtual-reality pool. It’s the best place to start, but by no means is it all that VR has to offer. Most smartphone VR headsets, for example, don’t have touch panels, buttons or other controls to let you engage with the more sophisticated VR apps and games that are out there. And don’t go in expecting “Matrix”-style realism. Because videos are displayed on a smartphone screen that gets magnified through the viewer’s lenses, resolution is good but not photorealistic. Convincing yourself that what you’re seeing is real will require some suspension of disbelief.

All that said, if you’ve ever wanted to be a real-life Johnny Mnemonic, it’s never been easier to do so. Here’s the best equipment for taking the virtual leap.

Dodocase VR Pop-Up Viewer

PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, STYLING BY ANNE CARDENAS

PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, STYLING BY ANNE CARDENAS

This some-assembly-required, no-frills cardboard viewer is one of the least expensive ways to try virtual reality, but its unsophisticated design (the product is held together with Velcro) doesn’t detract from the experience. The Pop-Up Viewer ships flat and takes about 30 seconds to fold into the boxlike shape you see above. Its cardboard construction actually works to its advantage by making it very lightweight. This is important because the Pop-Up Viewer has no straps; you have to hold it up to your face, just like a ViewMaster.

You can use the Pop-Up Viewer with any iPhone and most newer Android phones. Just slip your phone in and lock it into the Pop-Up’s front flap. There are no controls of any sort, so “stare-and-point” apps, like Google Cardboard on Android and VRSE on iOS (see below) are great ones to start with. $25, dodocase.com

Zeiss VR One

PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, STYLING BY ANNE CARDENAS

PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, STYLING BY ANNE CARDENAS

The Zeiss VR One is a step up from the Dodocase. Like its cardboard cousin, the VR One uses high-quality German-engineered optics but houses them in a solid-plastic headset that you can strap to your head. Although this approach looks much dorkier (and, some might say, scarier), it is ideal for longer viewing sessions. Using the VR One Cinema app, for example, you can watch any video stored on your smartphone as though you’re in a movie theater. Although the video will be in 2D, you’ll see it on a huge virtual screen and can turn to see theater seats in the periphery, as well as computer-generated people next to you. The VR One holds a smartphone in place using a form-fitting tray. Only two are currently available: one for the iPhone 6 and one for Samsung’s Galaxy S5. $99, zeiss.com

Samsung Gear VR

PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, STYLING BY ANNE CARDENAS

PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, STYLING BY ANNE CARDENAS

The Gear VR is the best smartphone-driven VR headset you can buy right now, but it only works with Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4. (If you own one of these, lucky you.) The Gear VR has comfortable padded straps and a touch-panel on the side for navigating apps.

What really sets the Gear VR apart, however, is the exclusive portal that Samsung and Facebook’s Oculus VR team have designed for it. Not only does the software offer access to games and 360-degree videos (sitting front-row at a Coldplay concert, scuba diving as a school of fish swim by), it’s also the only way (so far) to try Milk VR, Samsung’s virtual-reality streaming service, which the company is aiming to turn into the Netflix for VR content. It currently offers wraparound 3-D videos that let you “fly” a fighter jet, or “stand” courtside during an NBA practice session. $200, samsung.com

VIRTUAL DESTINATIONS

Three immersive apps that every first-time visitor to the VR world should check out

Froggy VR

In this 3-D game, you pilot a virtual frog who hops and swims around a swamp, snaps up flies with its tongue, enjoys a picnic on a lily pad and—gulp—runs into a crocodile. The graphics appear unabashedly computer generated, but the gameplay is simple and fun. And while Froggy VR is easy enough for children to play (no controller is required), adults will enjoy this leap, too. Available for Android and iOS. Free, fibrum.com

The Polar Sea 360

This is one of the most educational and beautiful VR apps we’ve seen so far. It offers a complete tour of the Arctic area between Canada and Greenland, starting from a satellite view of the earth then continuing to a helicopter and boat ride over the planet’s coldest waters and icebergs. Interviews with scientists, hunters and sailors round out the experience. Available for Android and iOS. Free, polarsea360.com

VRSE

To get an idea of the potential that virtual reality holds for story telling, load this app on your VR viewer. It’s filled with short 3-D 360-degree videos from the documentary and feature-film-making worlds. You can watch a short film about life in Syria as well as lighter fare, like a specially shot clip from SNL’s 40th anniversary episode and a Jerry Seinfeld interview—all as if you’re there live. Available for Android and iOS. Free,vrse.com