Whether you buy fully into the hype surrounding Virtual Reality or not, it's clear that it's a technology with a great deal of potential for the worlds of research, education and public engagement.
I've written about the power of virtual reality as a public engagement tool in another post but in this post I want to show you how you can get a first taste of virtual reality if you haven't already dipped your toe into the virtual pool.
From affordable headsets to compelling content, it's all here, so have a read, put on a headset and give it a go!
VR Headsets On A Budget
This is the cheapest way to start your VR journey. This flat-pack £15 cardboard VR headset that you slide a smartphone into is a stroke of genius from Google. Ok, so the picture quality isn't great but for what it costs this is a fantastic way to start exploring some of the VR content out there. Fold, stick, slide in your phone, pop on your headphones and you're away!
Samsung's headset is only compatible with its own smartphones but it represents a step up from Google cardboard. Designed by Oculus, the visuals are crisper and the experience is more immersive. Plus, there's a neat little touchpad on the side of the unit that allows you to select items and control the headset. And at less than £100 it still won't break the bank.
Like the Samsung Gear VR the Daydream works off a smartphone and is priced for the mass market (£69) but what sets it apart is the motion-sensitive controller, which allows users to wave a magic wand, hurl projectiles, flip flapjacks and perform other motion-enabled tasks in VR.
Since interactivity is one of the key draws of the VR experience the Daydream controller means it could provide the first true stepping-stone to the world of VR for millions of people.
There are many other more expensive options like Sony's Playstation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive but ranging in price as they do from £350 to £700 they might not be the best option if all you want to do at this stage is dip your toe into the virtual water.
What To Watch: The Best VR Video Content
Once you've chosen your VR headset there's a wide array of apps and videos to help you take your first steps into the world of VR. Here are a few of my favourites, some chosen for their storytelling, some because of the power of the immersive experience and others purely for the visuals. Enjoy!
The Google Cardboard app is required to watch certain VR videos on your smartphone, such as YouTube's 360 video output. It's also a great place to start your virtual reality adventure, as it introduces you to some of what's possible with your VR headset.
Within, previously called VRSE, is leading the way in VR storytelling. Its founders Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin are creating some utterly captivating VR content, working with the likes of the UN and the New York Times to produce beautiful and engaging immersive films that really pack a punch. Walking in New York was the first 360 documentary video I watched and it's still one of my favourites. And check out Evolution of Verse for a mind-blowing CGI adventure where you end up inside a womb, dwarfed by a gigantic human embryo! A little unsettling perhaps but it's stunning stuff.
The iconic New York Times has always been an early adopter of new technology so perhaps it's no surprise that it has fully embraced virtual reality, creating its very own app to showcase its best VR projects. Highlights include Fight for Fallujah, a VR film that puts the user at the frontline of the battle by Iraqi troops to free the town from ISIS forces, and Pilgrimage, an awe-inspiring journey right to the heart of Mecca to join millions of Muslim pilgrims who flock there each year.
From vertigo-inducing adventure films to frankly terrifying horror flicks, the Jaunt VR app is brimming with tonnes of inventive, well produced VR content that will keep you entertained for hours.
YouTube doesn't have its own VR app but there are lots of 360 videos to be viewed on its regular platform. Once you've downloaded Google Cardboard you'll be able to view VR content by clicking on the little google cardboard headset symbol in the bottom right-hand corner of applicable videos. Here are a couple of videos that show how VR can be used to raise public awareness about issues:
Autism: Too Much Information: A video produced by the National Autistic Society, which places the viewer in the body of a young autistic child experiencing one of the condition's most unsettling effects - sensory overload. The video shows from a first-hand point-of-view how disorientating and frightening it can be to experience life when your senses are acutely heightened.
The Nature Conservancy: A 360 video raising awareness about the overfishing of tuna stocks in the Pacific Ocean. There's a particularly powerful moment when the camera descends below the waves to expose what's happening inside the underbelly of a large fishing vessel.
This game transports you into the micro world of the human body to battle viruses. It is marketed as an educational science game and although the emphasis feels more on entertainment than education it does show how VR could be utilised in the future to make learning immersive and fun.
Peter Barker runs Orinoco Communications, a digital communications company specialising in helping research groups from science, the social sciences and the humanities to bring their research alive and engage with the public.