Vir­tual re­al­ity on the cheap? Try out these smart­phone apps

Houston Chronicle - - EXTRA TECHNOLOGY + GADGETS - By Kit Eaton | New York Times

At last week’s an­nual In­ter­na­tional CES, one of the largest tech­nol­ogy con­ven­tions, vir­tual re­al­ity gog­gles were hyped as a way to get a taste of the im­mer­sive 3-D tech­nol­ogy. Yet many peo­ple may be able to sam­ple vir­tual re­al­ity just by us­ing their phones with the right apps.

Start with the Within app, which is a free iOS and An­droid down­load. It uses so-called 360-de­gree video tech­nol­ogy, which is sim­i­lar to vir­tual re­al­ity and lets you look at a video in ev­ery di­rec­tion and to in­ter­act with and ex­plore a movie scene.

Within works like this: Imag­ine you are watch­ing a reg­u­lar film on your phone — with a point of view de­cided by where the film­maker was point­ing a cam­era. In the app, you can move your phone around in the air, look­ing all around and up and down, as you slide your view­point all around the scene, see­ing the ac­tors and the set wrap­ping all around you.

It’s al­most as if you were there stand­ing among the ac­tors. At first it may feel un­nerv­ing, and you may find your­self bump­ing into things in your real-life room. But you will be mes­mer­ized.

Within has ac­cess to a short list of 360-de­gree videos, in­clud­ing a mu­sic video made by U2 and a spe­cially filmed short episode of the hit TV se­ries “Mr. Ro­bot.” You sim­ply choose one of the videos, hit play and de­cide ei­ther to down­load the film for later view­ing or to stream it.

To watch the Within clips an­other way, use a Google Card­board de­vice (usu­ally around $20). This sim­ple hard­ware con­verts your phone into a full vir­tual re­al­ity gog­gle sys­tem, so you will see the clips in 3-D. This is even more of a taste of the fu­ture.

An al­ter­na­tive app called Jaunt VR has sim­i­lar fea­tures. It also has a cat­a­log of 360-de­gree videos that can be viewed on a phone screen or through Google Card­board or a sim­i­lar de­vice.

The app has a slightly longer list of films avail­able, and in many ways it is an ex­cel­lent peer to Within. But the video qual­ity seemed lower, and the menu sys­tem is a lit­tle more clunky. Nev­er­the­less, it is a free iOS and An­droid down­load, so you may as well try it out.

Google also has a free iOS and An­droid app to ac­com­pany its Card­board prod­uct. It is sim­ple, but it does help you set up Card­board and acts as a por­tal to some vir­tual-re­al­ity ex­pe­ri­ences. On An­droid, there is an even more in­ter­est­ing free Google app called Card­board Cam­era. This app guides you in mak­ing 360-de­gree cir­cu­lar panorama pho­tos, mak­ing you spin around with your phone held out to cap­ture a scene. You can then view your cre­ations later in the Card­board app. Not quite as im­pres­sive as an im­mer­sive 360-de­gree video, but still fun. There are also some vir­tual re­al­ity gam­ing apps worth try­ing, like the Card­board-com­pat­i­ble In­Mind 2 game. You move through the play area by solv­ing puz­zles (mainly by look­ing at a tar­get un­til it is se­lected). Along the way, some in­for­ma­tion will pop up that teaches you how hu­man brains work.

The graph­ics are smoothly an­i­mated and sur­real and may re­mind you of the psy­che­delic scenes from the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The 3-D ef­fect as you look around is im­pres­sive and amus­ing, though not par­tic­u­larly high res­o­lu­tion. In­Mind 2 is a free iOS and An­droid down­load, which gives you a good start in the game. It costs $3 to down­load more lev­els. For a more ex­cit­ing game, check out End Space VR. This is a space shooter game where en­e­mies can fly at you from all an­gles, in­clud­ing above and be­hind you. It works both with Card­board-like de­vices and in non-3-D mode, where you wave your phone around.

The graph­ics are fun, and the game­play is sim­ple but has enough to keep you in­ter­ested. End Space is a $1 iOS down­load. On An­droid, the game is called Mi­nos Starfighter, also for $1.

Quick Call

The Hap­pi­ness Plan­ner is a

dif­fer­ent type of cal­en­dar app. In­stead of merely help­ing or­ga­nize to-do lists and events, the app has a fo­cus on rais­ing your hap­pi­ness lev­els. At­trac­tively de­signed, this iOS app is free to use for 14 days and then costs $3 a month for ac­cess to all fea­tures.

Hand­out pho­tos via The New York Times

Screen­shots, from top, of the Jaunt VR app and the Within app.

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