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Technology

The Lure of Virtual Reality

It lets you go places without leaving home. But you may not want to pay up for the privilege just yet.

Remember the View-Master you had as a child that let you see Disney characters in 3-D? A virtual reality headset is like a View-Master for the 21st century. But now the headset may strap on like a pair of goggles. And instead of inserting a wheel of images, you use a phone, PC or other device to stream content.

The magic isn’t just in the headset. VR content is created either by stitching a series of images into a 360-degree video or by presenting slightly different images to each eye and creating the illusion of depth. Both aim to trick your brain into believing that you’ve been transported to a different place than the space your body currently occupies.

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Video gamers are already using the technology to enhance their experience of games such as Minecraft. But you don’t have to be a gamer to take advantage of VR. With a headset and apps such as Google Street View and YouVisit, you can sneak a peek at the site of an upcoming vacation. There are also apps that let you see places you won’t be visiting anytime soon—say, Mars or the ocean floor. You can even help an aging family member visit or revisit a place of their dreams.

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Several major news organizations, including the New York Times and USA Today, are using virtual reality to tell stories and offer short live-action documentaries (available via the NYT VR and USAToday apps, respectively). And some real estate agents are using the technology to help house hunters remotely tour properties. Want to make some DIY home improvements? Lowe’s has started rolling out in-store VR demo areas to teach you how to make, say, a redo of your shower tile a reality.

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Getting started. VR headsets range from large, clunky and pricey models to lightweight, affordable versions powered by your smartphone. But with virtual reality still firmly in its youth, it makes sense to hold off spending hundreds of dollars for one of the high-end models, such as the Oculus Rift ($500) or HTC Vive ($800), unless you’re an avid gamer and already own a robust PC to power your VR experience.

The easiest and cheapest way to try out VR is Google Cardboard ($15 in the Google Store). The headset—which really is made of folded cardboard, with a pair of plastic acrylic lenses—is more of a VR appetizer than a main course. To use Cardboard, you insert an Android phone or iPhone with a screen size of 4 to 6 inches into the box and secure it with the Velcro strips. Using Google Cardboard’s app (or search Google Play or the Apple App Store for “Google Cardboard” to find other compatible apps), you’ll be able to choose from thousands of options that let you, for example, play Pong in space, watch YouTube’s 360° channel or use your phone as a VR camera to take panoramas of your surroundings.

The Samsung Gear VR ($130) is a solid option if you already own one of the latest Samsung phones, such as the Galaxy S8 or S7 Edge. The headset includes a handheld controller that allows the unit to respond to hand movements and makes navigating menus easier. You can select from a variety of apps, such as Polyrunner VR for racing, NextVR for sports, concerts and other live events, and Discovery VR for immersive documentaries.

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