My dogs think I'm ill. Lately I've taken to standing in the middle of my living room, hands to my face, blindly turning in circles and whelping with astonishment or roaring at nothing. One of the dogs will hide, while the other will come up to paw my leg, only to scurry away when I almost step on her. At these moments, I am very far away. My body may be planted on the carpet, but my mind is in London or the Arctic or rural Iowa, thanks to portable virtual reality.
Every few months, I find myself astounded by the capabilities of my smartphone (currently an iPhone 5), whether I'm using it as a remote control to watch YouTube on my flat-screen TV, or as a remote shutter and viewscreen for my Wi-Fi-enabled digital camera. But these 3D experiences via a cheap, cardboard accessory have blown my mind.
Yes, cardboard. For a relatively low cost (my DodoCase VR cost about $25), you can attach what looks like a periscope eyepiece or old-school viewmaster to your iPhone, and download any number of the dozens of compatible apps. Like one of those Magic Eye posters, it may take awhile to train your eyes to combine the dual images into one 360-degree, 3-D environment. As you turn, the image rotates accordingly, and in some games you can even engage with the world (i.e., shoot things) by lingering on objects. While Oculus Rift may ultimately be a more sophisticated device, this cheaper solution provides a window into, not only new environments, but the very future. (The downsides: it doesn't work that well with glasses, my eyes reached their strain limit pretty quickly and most of the apps are relatively rudimentary.)
Still, do yourself a favor and get one. And after you do, check out some of these apps:
Sisters: This is a short, but frightening, virtual-reality experience, where you find yourself standing in the middle of a creepy room full of antiques during a lightning storm. Sitting on the mantle are twin porcelain dolls (the Sisters), and as you turn in circles to examine the objects in the space, they disappear, move around and jump out of nowhere. The company behind the game, Otherworld Interactive, has several other VR offerings, but this is definitely the one to try first.
Virtual Kaiju 3D: If you're of a certain generation, you'll remember Rampage from the video arcades—the somewhat pointless but ridiculously entertaining game where you and your friends control giant monsters that destroy skyscrapers and fend off the army. Virtual Kaiju 3D improves on this experience by allowing you to inhabit the body of a giant flame-spewing monster running amok in an urban landscape. Perhaps the best part of this game is how you shoot fireballs: by making noise. You could just say "Fire, fire," or "Pew-pew," but I prefer to let out long roars for maximum plumage.
Polar Sea 360: Nanook of the North, the examination of the daily life of an indigenous Canadian, was one of the first ethnographic documentary films, so it's only fitting that one of the first immersive 360-degree documentaries tackles a similar subject. Through a series of short films, the app takes you on a helicopter ride above the Arctic, tours you through a luxury cruise liner, drops you into the middle of a native community's butchering of a narwhal on the beach, as well as several other miniature adventures. You're more than a fly on the wall; you're a ghost standing in the middle of the action, where the scenes unfold as you turn in circles.
VR Stories: Gannett is leading virtual-reality newsgathering on the local level with features for Oculus Rift that are also available on mobile devices. Since launching last year, they've released stories about how technology is changing farming in Iowa as well as coverage of the Selma anniversary marches, the World Alpine Ski Championships and the Cincinnati Reds. (Available through online app stores)
A few others worth checking out: BBC's War of Words, a 3D treatment of a famous World War I poem, the VR promo for the film Insurgent and Hasbro's 360 Sharks, which lets you swim through the ocean and hunt prey through the eyes of various sharks.