Trapped at home? Now’s a good time to try virtual reality. Here’s how to get started.

Image: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Image: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

On a recent morning, I stepped into the Louvre for a private, guided tour. It was amazing to stand in front that most famous portrait painted by Leonardo da Vinci. I walked right up to the glass case and could almost touch her smile. Along the way, my tour guide explained the history of this fantastic painting.

Best of all, I had the Louvre all to myself, all for free and without leaving my home.

I know there are many out there getting cabin fever from self-quarantining. But there is an ever-growing virtual world at your fingertips to transport you out of home confinement through engaging and immersive experiences.

Think VR is out of reach? Don’t have a headset or expensive computer to experience it? Well, here’s a newsflash: You don’t need one.

Sure the high-end headsets made by Oculus, HTC, Samsung et al. may offer more immersive experiences, all you need to get started today is your smartphone.

The easiest way to watch VR – short of fully experiencing it – is with a smartphone. At a minimum, you can get the “VR Light” experience using a droidphone with any Chrome-based browser, the YouTube app, or even Facebook’s app to watch so-called 360 videos. When watching such videos on your smartphone, you can “look around” by swiping the view around, or even hold the phone in front of you and move it around like a small window into an alternate dimension. Bonus: Doing this will give anyone nearby a laugh, but be careful not to get dizzy and fall down.

iPhones are a little different. Apple didn’t jump on board with VR till later in the game, and so you’ll need a dedicated app to view them. There are many, but the current best in my estimation are the YouTube App, NYT VR (New York Times), Discovery VR.

The next step up are smartphone headset hybrids which range from the very cheap Google Cardboard to the Samsung Gear VR, and everything in between. Google Cardboard is very entry level and works on Android and iPhone. Download the app (Droid/iOS) and get a Google Cardboard viewer. They run about US$6 on Lazada. You could also get crafty and make one from stuff around the house by following a YouTube video, but the binocular lenses required may not be worth it.

The next step up the ladder is the Oculus Go VR Headset. The first standalone VR headset to come from Facebook-owned Oculus has decent graphics, a single handheld controller and is supported by more than 1,000 available apps. Being a standalone headset means it doesn’t need to be tethered to a computer. It has built-in Wi-Fi and doesn’t weigh much, so it can be used wherever you go. Powergamers may be turned off by limitations on the graphics and single controller.

The next step up the chain is the Oculus Quest. This is another standalone headset but features some of the best graphics and two controllers. It also has something called inside-out tracking, which means it has four built-in cameras that “see” where you are and can keep you from falling over furniture. The selection of apps and games is fewer than the Go, but Oculus has said that it is keeping high quality standards.

Lastly, there are the tethered platforms such as the Oculus Rift S, HTC Vive and Valve Index. These are not only costly, they must be attached to expensive PCs. They’re really meant for hardcore gamers and, apart from limited listings in various online marketplaces, are more difficult to find in Thailand.

So those are the hardware options, let’s get to the good stuff, the videos, and VR tours that you can watch.

For that trip to the Louvre, I would suggest two, first the VR version of Petite Galerie, then over to the museum’s official Mona Lisa VR experience, where there are links to both Android and iOS versions.

An excellent app for Oculus devices is Art Plunge, which takes users inside the creation and background story of the Mona Lisa and other iconic masterpieces.

Or spend the day at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History through its VR tours. These first-rate tours can be taken on your PC, smartphone or VR Headset. Use the interactive map to jump to different areas of the museum or follow a guided path; the choice is yours. The map will keep track of where you’ve already been and allow you to zoom in or out of anything.

Image: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Image: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Google even has a spectacular VR Tour of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation in New York.

When your digital legs get too tired, get comfortable and dive into some of the fantastic selections of 360 and VR180 videos on YouTube. VR180 videos look like regular 2D videos when watched on a phone or computer but appear 3D through a VR Headset.

Go underwater without getting wet in Casey Sapp’s underwater VR videos on YouTube. I especially love the VR180 3D Santa Barbara Island Sealions & Kelp 180 3D. Viewed in a VR Headset, you feel like you can reach out and touch them

But immerse yourself in Biosphere VR and the Guadalupe White Sharks may have you jumping out of your headset like me.

If you like aircraft, the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, California, is a great way to see planes from the Wright Bros. era to a Boeing F/A-18 Hornet that actor Harrison Ford once flew. The museum has more than 150 restored vintage aircraft in two hangars: Legends and Starfighter.

 

For some Bangkok content, check out the VR story I did with Coconuts Bangkok that takes people into the home of a Bangkok woman facing eviction from its largest slum community. Or experience a rousing cave rescue from the perspective of Coach Aek from last year’s movie The Cave (YouTube, Oculus). Hear the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre filled with the music of Beethoven.

 

Also, check out my YouTube channel and Facebook, where I’ve posted a wide variety of videos such as a first-hand flight in a Cobra attack helicopter (Facebook, YouTube or Oculus). Videos there are in 360 and VR180.

Those are just a few of the ways you can check out of isolation to explore the world. Let us know what else you discover.

Al Caudullo is an independent virtual-reality and 360-video filmmaker in Bangkok. Find his work online.

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