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.

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.

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.

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.

Most Popular

Where's My Stimulus Check? Use the IRS's "Get My Payment" Portal to Get an Answer
Coronavirus and Your Money

Where's My Stimulus Check? Use the IRS's "Get My Payment" Portal to Get an Answer

The IRS has an online tool that lets you track the status of your second stimulus check.
January 18, 2021
The Recovery Rebate Credit: Get Your Full Stimulus Check Payment With This Tax Credit
Tax Breaks

The Recovery Rebate Credit: Get Your Full Stimulus Check Payment With This Tax Credit

If you didn't get a stimulus check, or you didn't get the full amount, you may be able to claim the recovery rebate credit on your 2020 tax return.
January 18, 2021
When Could We Get a Third Stimulus Check?
Coronavirus and Your Money

When Could We Get a Third Stimulus Check?

President-elect Joe Biden and others in Congress are pushing for a third-round of stimulus checks, but it might be a while before we get them.
January 18, 2021

Recommended

Kiplinger's Weekly Earnings Calendar
stocks

Kiplinger's Weekly Earnings Calendar

Check out our earnings calendar for the upcoming week, as well as our previews of the more noteworthy reports.
January 17, 2021
Wedbush: TSLA Has Double-Digit Upside, But Don't Buy
tech stocks

Wedbush: TSLA Has Double-Digit Upside, But Don't Buy

Analyst Dan Ives just put a Street-high $950 price target on TSLA stock, but he maintained his Neutral stance. Here's why.
January 15, 2021
The 21 Best Stocks to Buy for 2021
Kiplinger's Investing Outlook

The 21 Best Stocks to Buy for 2021

Call it a comeback. Many of the best stocks to buy for 2021 are heavily tied to economic recovery prospects as the world fights back against COVID-19.
December 31, 2020
Wedbush: Apple iPhone 12 ‘Supercycle Reality Meeting Hype’ (AAPL)
Technology

Wedbush: Apple iPhone 12 ‘Supercycle Reality Meeting Hype’ (AAPL)

AAPL stock has up to 46% additional upside, says Wedbush's Ives, as ‘Cook & Co. have the stage set for a supercycle 5G product release.’
December 31, 2020