I had no idea what to expect the first time I strapped the Samsung Gear VR over my head.
One minute I was standing beside the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset; when I turned my head to look behind me there were even people in my new virtual world.
A moment later, I was swimming with a sea turtle toward a distant island.
Then, I jetted to explore a basilica in Rome.
Welcome to virtual reality.
What is a virtual reality headset?
Worn like goggles, a VR headset immerses you in a virtual world. If you’re playing a game, you take on your character’s point of view in a 3D world. Look up, down, left, right or behind you. The VR headset simulates your actions as you become your character, with no outside light, email or app alerts to distract you.
“Your entire field of view is the image in front of you,” explains Michael Grabowski, an associate professor of communication at Manhattan College, who’s researching the field. “That’s much different from watching a TV screen—a rectangle in front of you that you can look away from.
“VR makes it easier to visualize and experience places that we can only imagine.”—Michael Grabowski
Augmented reality—is that the same as virtual reality?
No. Augmented reality blends real life with a virtual layer; VR is totally simulated.
For example, with AR apps, you can use your phone to put a virtual tattoo on your arm, or fight off virtual zombies in your garage. With VR, you’d wear a headset and see a virtual tattoo on a new character’s arm, or fight virtual zombies in an apocalyptic landscape.
How does the Samsung Gear VR work?
First you need a compatible phone like the Samsung Galaxy S7. It plugs into the VR headset; your phone runs the apps and videos you interact with, and acts as a screen for the headset.
A strap goes around the back of your head, so you can lean back and enjoy your simulated world (you shouldn’t walk around, since you won’t actually see anything in real life). A simple touchpad and single button on the side of the Gear VR help you navigate and interact.
The Gear VR is powered by Oculus, a company that’s working on its own Rift VR headset.
What can you interact with in virtual reality?
Games. Videos. Movies. 360-degree photos. You name it. VR content is available from several places including the Oculus Store (for games such as Land’s End) and Samsung Milk VR (for 360-degree videos and more).
There are VR apps from more familiar names, too. The Netflix VR app, for example, lets you stream movies or shows with your regular Netflix subscription. Vimeo and Twitch also have their own VR apps.
You can even create an Oculus social profile, find friends and play VR games with or against them.
Is virtual reality disorienting?
It can be. This was my main hesitation with trying VR: I get nauseated on roller coasters and when I read in a moving car, so would virtual 3D make me ill? But I tried it anyway, and after playing around with VR for a few weeks, I haven’t had any issues. However there is a motion sickness warning in the user guide (which points out that the Gear VR shouldn’t be used by kids under 13).
Is virtual reality worth paying attention to now?
Yes. VR headsets for the average consumer are in their infancy, but the creative ways people use them are growing exponentially. Think of shopping for a home and using a VR headset to explore rooms in 3D. Or a concert, where a VR headset and surround sound can put you in the front row. Even mental health—you can practice speaking to a virtual crowd to overcome your fears.
Every week, articles emerge about developers making apps and new content for virtual reality. Magazine and newspaper publishers like The New York Times are catching on, too.
“This is going to be another form of media that we’re going to be attached to,” Grabowski says. “It’s unlike other experiences and therefore something people are going to want to become a part of.”
All I can say is, seeing is believing.