Current VR technology most commonly uses virtual reality headsets or multi-projected environments, sometimes in combination with physical environments or props, to generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations that simulate a user's physical presence in a virtual or imaginary environment. A person using virtual reality equipment is able to "look around" the artificial world, move around in it, and interact with virtual features or items. The effect is commonly created by VR headsets consisting of a head-mounted display with a small screen in front of the eyes, but can also be created through specially designed rooms with multiple large screens.
VR systems that include transmission of vibrations and other sensations to the user through a game controller or other devices are known as haptic systems. This tactile information is generally known as force feedback in medical, video gaming, and military training applications.
The most exciting thing about VR is that we’re still just scratching the surface and discovering new ways to educate and entertain ourselves. With that in mind, here are ten VR apps that made a difference in 2018.
Platforms: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, PSVR
Penrose Studios’ free-to-play, stop-motion VR film experience chronicling the story of a young girl in a cloud-borne village is absolutely breathtaking. In Allumette, you act as the camera, exploring the gorgeously drawn world however you please — even ignoring the main storyline, if you so desire. Make no mistake: This is a narrative, not a game. Though none of the characters in Allumette actually speak, per se, the forms of communication they do use (emotive, Sims-like noises, mostly) do an effective job of conveying emotion and intent.
The story itself — based loosely upon a poem by Hans Christian Andersen — is both charming and heartrending, though we won’t spoil too much here. Few VR experiences create the same sense of weight and presence for the viewer, and in Allumette, you’ll truly feel like you’ve been transported into a storybook world. The 20-minute runtime is an eternity in comparison to most narrative-based VR experiences — few even reach the 10-minute mark — but Penrose CEO and founder Eugene Chung considers virtual and augmented reality to be the future of storytelling, and pushing boundaries is the only way to break paradigms. Allumette lies somewhere in the murky realm between filmic narrative and video games, but somehow it rises above genre as a simply divine experience.
Platforms: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, OSVR
Top notch sound design and wonderful, Samurai Jack-esque animation are the driving forces behind Colosse, a short-story VR experience that responds to the rooted player’s gaze, moving the narrative forward seamlessly. Described by developer Fire Panda as a “real-time virtual reality storytelling experience,” Colosse revels in its sense of scale, with clever details throughout — for instance, the “hunter” character is rendered at just 12 frames per second, while the rest of the film is in 60 — that contribute to its unique atmosphere.
Audio and visual cues direct the player’s gaze, and certain objects “wait” to activate until you look at them, which provides a natural sense of pace. Certain events will occur depending upon the direction you’re facing, so you’ll never be stuck searching for the next piece of the puzzle.
GOOGLE EARTH VR (FREE)
Platforms: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard
When VR began to blossom as an entertainment medium, one of our first thoughts was: “Google Earth is going to be super freaking cool.” Turns out, we were right. Flying around the planet like some kind of hypersonic eagle is both enjoyable and educational, at least if you happen to like geography. And even if you don’t, you can still use the quick-nav menu to visit landmark sites like the Sphinx or the Golden Gate Bridge, or pay a digital visit to the capital of Djibouti.
Unsurprisingly, lots of landscapes and areas appear to be little more than colorful smudges (especially if you’re using Google Cardboard), but it’s a free app, so what are you gonna do? Zooming across vast distances in a matter of seconds and descending upon mammoth structures like the Hoover Dam is exhilarating, even if you can’t make out the individual cars driving across it. Chances are, you’ve used Google Earth before, so you know the drill. It only gets more fun in virtual reality; just don’t expect too much detail.
KINGSPRAY GRAFFITI VR ($15)
Platforms: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift
Ever fancied yourself a street artist? No, not like the guy who paints himself gold and stands still for several hours. A true street artist — think Banksy or Shepard Fairey, scaling freeway overpasses and windy rooftops to unleash your inner Rembrandt for urban passersby to appreciate (or scoff at, as the case may be). In Kingspray, you can (legally) live out those dreams, using (virtual) spray paint to make your mark on one of five (digital) walls, from laboratories to rooftops.
Whether you prefer to tag alleyway walls or train cars, Kingspray features realistic drip and spray effects, complete with different can caps and pressures to fully customize your masterpiece. You can load up images and project them onto paint surfaces to act as stencils, save 360 degree screen captures, and even paint online with up to three friends. What more could you want? Oh, yeah, in true VR fashion, you can pick up loose objects like bricks and bottles to throw at each other. Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta.
Platforms: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, PSVR, Samsung Gear VR
Using your VR headset to watch content from Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube is fun. It’s like having your own personal IMAX movie theater to visit any time you want, without dropping obscene amounts of coin on popcorn and cookie dough bites. (Unlike next-gen IMAX, it won’t use lasers, of course.) Littlstar VR Cinema changes the game by offering a full library of 360 degree videos designed to make you feel like you’re the cameraman. Whether you’d prefer to educate yourself about the state of Nepal post-earthquake or simply jam out to some music videos, Littlstar provides a point of view that you just can’t get anywhere else.
There’s Broadway theater content, sports content, and content for kids, making this one of the best VR experiences out there. It’s also absolutely free. The user interface is smoother on some platforms than it is on others — looking at you, Rift — but that’s a minor complaint. If you’re the creative type, you can even film and upload your own 360-degree content for others to view and enjoy.
OCEAN RIFT ($10)
Platforms: Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR (demo)
The open ocean is a terrifying yet wondrous place, and its full depths are on display in Ocean Rift. The experience is akin to an African safari, except you’re free to roam wherever you please — and you’re underwater, of course. Explore any of the 12 huge open habitats at your leisure, observing marine wildlife that includes dolphins, manatees, sharks, and more. Head toward the surface to cavort with sea turtles, or dive into deeper waters to encounter more dangerous — and potentially deadly — animals.
If you want to simply sit back and watch the fish pass you by, Ocean Rift can be a calming, therapeutic experience. If you’d prefer to explore the game to its fullest, it can almost become a survival horror game with a few surprises up its watery sleeve. Little touches — like the outline of a diving mask around the screen’s edges — help to make this a truly memorable experience. If you don’t want to pay for the full experience, check out the Gear VR demo here.
THE FOO SHOW (FREE)
Platforms: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, OSVR
Of all the fantastical possibilities that the commercialization of virtual reality affords, talk shows are extremely low on the list. After all, who really wants to step into the shoes of an audience member on Oprah, without even receiving a free gift?
As it turns out, though, it can be cool. The FOO show — hosted by co-founder Will Smith, a.k.a. FOO — is technically a talk show, but it’s so much more than that. The show, funded via Kickstarter and powered by motion-capture, features a digitized Smith speaking with digitized guests about games and tech culture.
You might be wondering: “Why is this in VR?” That’s a good question! The coolest thing about The FOO Show is its creative use of VR to transport viewers directly into the game environments that are being discussed onscreen. For example, the first episode (technically, Episode 0) transports viewers — as well as cyber-Smith, and his cyber-guests — into the watchtower from Firewatch, where you can walk around, examine your surroundings, and interact with objects, all while enjoying insightful commentary. The following episode depicts Smith interviewing Blendo Games’ Brendon Chung about hacker-puzzle game Quadrilateral Cowboy, with part of the interview taking place in one of the game’s environments. Frankly, we’re not sure what kind of schedule the show will adhere to — if any — but it’s a creative concept that gamers should love.
TILT BRUSH ($20)
If you’re not the artsy type, Tilt Brush might surprise you. Using the motion sensors for the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift Touch controllers, the app allows you to “paint” in a three-dimensional space to create absolutely stunning works of art, in any color imaginable. The motion controls are surprisingly accurate, and the digital medium means you can simply go back to delete any mistakes you might have made. Even if you’re not naturally creative, Tilt Brush will bring out a new side of you.
In addition to painting (which, sadly, is limited to a single brush shape), you can add cool effects like sparkling stars or smoke trails to accentuate elements of your painting. The Oculus Rift version boasts a cool “preview” feature, but the app is equally enjoyable on either platform. Currently, Google (the creator) has chosen not to bring Tilt Brush to PSVR, citing a lack of precision in the tracking software. If you own a Vive or Rift, though, you absolutely have to get Tilt Brush. For now, it’s one of the best VR experiences out there, introducing an entirely new artistic medium for creatives and non-creatives alike to enjoy.
VIRTUAL DESKTOP ($14+)
Platforms: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, OSVR
Have you ever fantasized about navigating your computer in virtual reality, like that episode of The Fairly Odd Parents where Timmy actually goes inside the internet? Neither have we. If that sounds interesting, though, boy, do we have some good news for you! Virtual Desktop lets you use your computer in VR, whether you’re browsing the web, watching Netflix, or playing games. Hell, you can even manage spreadsheets in VR, though we think that might be more of a hindrance than anything.
The app works well with multiple-monitor setups, and using your headset to swivel back and forth between screens is pretty cool.
Platforms: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, OSVR, PSVR, Google Cardboard
Within provides a platform to view amazing content from VR creators across the world, from crazy on-rails fantasy rides to 360-degree music videos. New experiences are added regularly, including a 13-minute, 360-degree video based on the hit TV show Mr. Robot, to entertain and educate you in the most immersive manner possible. View content from news outlets like NBC, Apple, the New York Times, and Vice Media, as well as musical groups and movie studios.
The Possible, a video series from the Within team, explores technology through the lens of your VR headset, with each episode touching on different topics, like hovercrafts and robotic dogs. The show is directed by David Gelb (Chef’s Table), and new episodes are released regularly. If you don’t download Within, you’re doing yourself a disservice — the app is free, and even if some of the content doesn’t pique your interest, the available library is only going to get bigger over time. Video quality varies — it seems the animated content is smoother than the live-action content — but that’s no reason to deny yourself the Within experience.
NYT VR (FREE)
Platforms: Android, iPhone, Samsung Gear VR
Although VR games tend to get a lot of the press attention, 360 filmmaking is an exciting — if embryonic — use of virtual reality tech. Although people are still figuring out how best to immerse viewers within film, there are some interesting experiments out there. The New York Times is producing some of the highest quality work in the field of 360 video, and all one needs to watch them is a smartphone.
Although NYT VR doesn’t have a vast library at the moment, the current videos cover a range of topics. In one, a woman relays the experience of listening to music for the first time after receiving a cochlear implant, and how it differed from her experiences with rhythm as a child, the narration accentuated by stylish drawings. Another gives viewers a look inside the studio as rock band The National records their latest album. The production values are exquisite, images flowing seamlessly as the viewers looks around.
FULLDIVE VR (FREE, WITH IN-APP PURCHASES)
Platforms: Google Cardboard, Daydream, iPhone, Android
Fulldive VR bills itself as a “Social All-in-One VR Platform.” What that means is that it provides a platform where users can browse VR content from a variety of sources, sharing their findings with friends and even commenting on them. The app is compatible with Google Cardboard, and is easy to get into. The app’s interface drops users in a 3-D environment where they can browse menus, adjust settings, and view their friend list. As with many Cardboard apps, users can navigate by looking at a particular icon. In addition to “trending” videos, Fulldive sorts content by emotions, like “Cute” or “Scary,” which isn’t always the easiest way to find what you’re looking for.
The content itself comes from a wide swath of sources, including the New York times and Discovery. Users can jump from a short, CGI film in which they flee a giant squid, to first person documentary footage of elephants. If you’re looking for a wealth of VR content, Fulldive is a great resource.
InCell VR (FREE)
In the famous film Fantastic Voyage, a team of scientists were shrunk down so they could explore the insides of the human body in a little submarine. Now you can do the same without any scientists, and unlike in the film you’re not going to be pummelled by platelets or beaten by blood cells or see your submarine smashed to bits. Primarily because you don’t have a submarine.
We’ve included this as an app although technically it’s a game because it’s not really much of a game and it’s quite a good science app: it takes place inside a virtual model of the human body, and as you race around the place collecting points you get to learn the different components of the cell. It plays rather like Wipeout, but with microbiology instead of hovering space cars and with levels called things like ‘Mitochondrion’. That, of course, is a double-membrane-bound organelle found in most eukaryotic organisms.
InMind 2 VR (FREE)
Like InCell, InMind is billed as a game but it’s quite educational too. It all takes place inside the brain of a teenager called John, and as John experiences different emotions you can see how the various chemicals combine to create and communicate those moods. John appears to be quite spectacularly dull and there are a couple of wrong notes such as John imagining having a whole bunch of guns "to protect the country from its hidden enemies", which makes you wonder if his future involves going up a watchtower with an AK-47. However, the in-brain stuff is genuinely thrilling as neurotransmitters ping and tendrils pulse like plants in some kind of bizarre alien space forest.
Visually it’s often very beautiful, and we’d be quite happy to have the gameplay elements and voiceover removed so we could simply float around in John’s brain juice. Which sounds bad, we know.