If you're not a gamer—and even if you are—it's hard to justify spending a small fortune on a VR headset such as the $600 on the Oculus Rift ($600) or HTC Vive ($800) to experience 360-degree video and immersive storytelling. But you can experience VR for a lot less with one of the dozens of inexpensive headsets out there, such as the $15 Google Cardboard. These devices hold your own smartphone in place a few inches from your eyes, and then you watch the VR content on the phone display.
While low-priced headsets are easy to find, great VR content is not. At the Apple App Store and the Google Play store, you can search for "VR games" to find Cardboard-compatible options. But finding great immersive, VR-powered video for smartphones is a bit more difficult. Here's our list of some of the best places to start exploring.
As you might expect, the company that created those Google Cardboard headsets has a well-stocked library of content developed for the device. YouTube hosts VR content on its 360° Videos Channel. Among the many offerings are jaw-dropping clips from GoPro, Mountain Dew, and the Discovery Channel.
To view the content through a phone-powered VR headset, you'll have to download the YouTube app (Android and iOS). Then select any VR-compatible YouTube video, load it onto your device, tap the Cardboard icon at the bottom of the screen, and watch as the video splits in two. That's okay. You need a separate video stream for each eye. Then drop the phone into your VR headset, sit back, and enjoy the show.
If you don't have a VR headset handy, that's okay, too. You can still explore the worlds inside YouTube's 360-degree videos by moving your smartphone around in your hand.
The New York Times has done some ground-breaking work with 360-degree cameras to make its news stories more immersive. The NYT VR app (Android and iOS) provides more than a dozen examples, ranging from a report on the language of dolphins and whales to an investigation of the U.S. Border Patrol. In November, the Times shipped 1 million Google Cardboard headsets to its home-delivery subscribers to celebrate the launch of this effort. This month, it sent another 300,000 headsets to its online-only subscribers so they too could fully enjoy its latest VR effort, "Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart."
The Discovery Channel also showcases its VR content in an app (Android and iOS). In addition to clips from the "MythBusters" cast, it includes hair-raising footage from "Deadliest Catch" and "Pressure Chamber."
Although the company spent $2 billion to purchase Oculus in 2014, Facebook's VR content offerings are limited. The Facebook 360 page aggregates videos from brands including Red Bull and National Geographic, but on most days, it's populated with content simply plucked from the feeds of "friends" with 360-degree cameras.
Interactive storytelling is one of the hallmarks of virtual reality, and nobody does that better than Chris Milk, the pioneering director of online hits such as the Johnny Cash Project and Arcade Fire's "The Wilderness Downtown." With his new VR company VRSE, Milk plans to bring that talent for innovative story-telling to a whole new technology. On the VRSE app, you'll find award-winning 3D films and recent collaborations with partners such as NBC, The New York Times, and Vice.
The months ahead will no doubt bring even richer options. Disney recently dipped its toes into the VR pool, creating brief immersive experiences for fans of "The Jungle Book," "Captain America: Civil War," and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." Time Inc. and USA Today are developing VR content, too.
With its Expeditions Pioneer Program, Google is hoping to bring VR into classrooms around the world, and a company called Next VR is looking to do the same in the world of sports. It has already produced live VR broadcasts with the NBA, NASCAR, and the stewards of the U.S. Open Golf Tournament and the Kentucky Derby.
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