Remember the View-Master you had as a child that let you see images in 3-D? A virtual reality headset is like a View-Master for the 21st century. But 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.
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.
Several major news organizations are using virtual reality to tell stories and offer short live-action documentaries (available via the NYT VR and USAToday apps, respectively). 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.
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).
The easiest and cheapest way to try out VR is Google Cardboard ($15 in the Google Store). To use Cardboard, you insert an Android phone or iPhone 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.
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. 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.
Kaitlin Pitsker is a staff writer at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.