VIRTUAL REALITY is here to stay, even if most people haven’t tried it yet, and not everyone agrees on the definition. It’s often confused with augmented reality (think Pokémon Go), and they both get lumped together as immersive, mixed, or hybrid technologies. Whatever the name, they give the illusion of being someplace you aren’t, or seeing something that isn’t real, but seems real. Even in their current early stage of development, VR and AR can “take you there” better than photos, video, or any other medium that ever existed. And they’re only going to get better.
Space and aviation are perfect subjects for these new technologies. Whether it’s looking around inside the International Space Station or sitting in the cockpit of an F-22, VR cameras are going places that few people ever get to see in person. We’ll use this Space VR page to alert you to some of the best apps and experiences.
How to get started
First you’ll need a headset or VR glasses. Most of our early recommendations have been for Google Cardboard or Gear VR, since those introduced millions of people to basic VR, and are still in wide circulation, even if many people tried them once and tossed them in the closet. For under $20 you can buy any one of hundreds of Cardboard headsets or fold-up glasses online. Here are some that Google recommends. Plastic is more durable than cardboard, and the plastic sets generally come assembled (as opposed to a kit). You also might want one with a headstrap, so your arms don’t get tired holding the thing to your face. Your phone serves as the display, and clips or slides into the headset.
Gear VR and Google Daydream are the next level up in terms of VR quality, although they only work with selected smartphones, and Google is phasing out support for Daydream. The more expensive ($200) Oculus Go is better still, and doesn't require a phone at all. Everything you need is in the headset. You can still buy a used Go, but Oculus is phasing that out, too, in favor of the more expensive Oculus Quest and ($300) Quest 2, which right now, in terms of number of available experiences and overall bang for the buck, are the best consumer VR headsets on the market. The Quest adds a crucial element—the ability to move around physically within a VR space. Finally, you can buy higher-end systems like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, which have to be connected to a fairly capable gaming computer or console. And of course, all of this hardware is expected to get better and cheaper over time.
For the low-end phone-based headsets, you’ll need to install on your phone the (mostly) free apps that contain the VR images or videos. Many can be viewed with Google’s own YouTube, Cardboard and StreetView apps, all of which are indispensible.
See below for regular recommendations about what we think are some of the best space- and aviation-related VR experiences, or send us your own suggestions. And keep checking airspacemag.com/vr as we add more. If you call up the page on your phone, you can go directly to the links.
Note: To watch 360-degree YouTube videos with a Cardboard headset, be sure to open them in the YouTube app on your smartphone. You should see a little cardboard symbol in the lower right corner that you then tap to split the screen. If you don’t, try tapping the “share” symbol [arrow] in the YouTube frame, then the ... [three dots] symbol, which should open the video directly in your phone’s YouTube app.