VR on a Budget- the best (and worst) free VR apps
2016 will be remembered as the year that virtual reality finally started coming into its own. A raft of VR headsets hit the shops- HTC’s Vive, Sony’s PlayStation VR and Google’s Daydream among them- and many more are in development. VR technology has the potential to revolutionise how we work, learn, and interact with one other, which is all very exciting. If you’re anything like me, however, you might be more interested in the opportunities it presents for immersive entertainment. The HTC Vive is getting rave reviews from gamers. Unfortunately, if you (like me) don’t have £700 to spare, then you’re probably having to make do without one.
But hope is not lost for us cheapskate VR thrill seekers! There are many budget phone headsets on the market: Google Cardboard is available from £15, and some headsets are even cheaper. Better yet, the Apple App and Google Play stores have a huge variety of free apps to help you transform your smartphone into a completely immersive VR experience- or that's the idea, anyway. In fact, the quality of these apps is variable, but help is at hand. Using an Infinity VR headset and a friend’s borrowed iPhone, I have reviewed the best- and worst- VR experiences that the app stores have to offer:
1. Jurassic VR by Rabbit Mountain (available for Android and iOS)- 2 stars
This Jurassic-park-inspired, prehistoric safari lets you experience the thrill of riding on the back of a dinosaur. The app as a whole is disappointing, though: the graphics are poor and blocky, the scenery frankly weird. For example, there is a campsite and a couple of log cabins in the middle of the safari, for some reason. What is it doing there? Who would go camping in a park full of dinosaurs? We may never know. Your dinosaur steed takes you on a very small circuit, in the course of which you encounter a couple of velociraptors and a T-Rex. You can (in theory) control the direction of the circuit through the direction of your gaze, but the control mechanism is haphazard and there is no other way of interacting with your environment- two big minuses.
2. Aquarium-VR by EON reality (available for Android and iOS)- 3 stars
Another app which puts you in a virtual scene, though this one allows you a greater degree of interaction with your environment. The graphics are nicer too: open the app and find yourself transported to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, with an assortment of dolphins, sharks and clownfish frolicking around you. Focusing on an animal by looking in its direction triggers a voice which informs you about its habitat, behaviour and diet. The facts are interesting, but the computerised voice that delivers them is enough to send you to sleep. It’s no David Attenborough documentary, but I’d recommend the experience of diving without getting your feet wet.
3. Maze Walk VR by MyPad3D (available for iOS only)- 4 stars
It’s a race against the clock in this maze-threading game. Find your way through a series of high-walled mazes, collecting coins while trying to set a new speed record. One big advantage of the game is that you can move around the virtual world simply by bobbing your head and walking on the spot. The downside of this is that you look like a demented chicken while you play, but the motion controls do mean that you can enjoy the app without having to invest in a Bluetooth remote control to accompany your headset. The mazes themselves are very easy- the first two are easily solvable in under a minute. But the graphics, although simple, are decent, and there’s something incredibly exciting about being able to move through a virtual world under your own steam. The main drawback of the game is that all the head-bobbing can give you serious motion sickness if you’re playing for long periods. I’d recommend it in small doses.
4. 11:57 by Wemersive Ltd. (available for Android and iOS)- 5 stars
11:57 is a virtual reality horror movie produced by the Sid Lee Collective. You play the main character in what its creators refer to as a ‘360-degree nightmare’. The film certainly lives up to this claim: it’s dark, atmospheric, and very scary. The most terrifying thing about it is that the scares can come from any direction- wherever you look, something could be creeping through the shadows, sneaking up on you from behind or out of left field. This creates a truly engaging experience, enhanced by great visual effects and strong acting. I’d recommend it, but it’s not for the faint hearted! If you’re feeling really brave, try watching it with headphones in and the lights off.
5. Jaunt VR by JauntVR (available for Android and iOS)- 5 stars
Jaunt is a film and TV streaming service- like Netflix, but for VR. It’s got an extensive collection of short films, and even its own original TV series, Invisible, from director Doug Liman. The Jaunt app has a clean, visually appealing menu screen, with good graphics and gaze-activated menus. But it’s the sheer amount and variety of content on offer that makes this by far my favourite of all the apps I’ve tried. Better yet, the Jaunt library is constantly updated, with new content added all the time. If you’re looking for a place to start, try the short film Invasion- a must-see if you like cute fluffy bunnies and evil aliens.
With thanks to Rebecca Banks and Daniel Winkworth.
Written by: Louise Carey