So we busted the budget and spent $10 at Amazon for Google’s cardboard virtual reality headset. We later found we could have bought one at KnoxLabs.com for $5. (Amazon isn’t always the cheapest.).
Is it worth it? Well, yeah. The resolution isn’t the sharpest, but there you are flying inside a wrap-around video. There are reports that some people experience dizziness and even nausea from this experience but we had none of that; it was more like being in an IMAX theater in your living room.
So what’s the gist of virtual reality? It’s more than an IMAX experience because it’s three-sixty, as they say. That’s 360 degrees, a wrap-around. You can look at what’s behind you as well as ahead and all sides. It’s also 360 degrees up and down; you can see the clouds up above and the ground (or water) under your feet.
This is all early days. It is obvious that we are looking at a technology in its infancy. The details are going to get sharper, there will be background music and we will be invincible as we romp through fantasy land.
Now as the device goes, it is sort of a souped-up version of the stereopticons that were popular in the early part of the 20th century. In those you slipped a photo card with two versions of the same image, in front of two viewing lenses. The photos were of the same subject but each taken at a slightly different angle, so that when viewed through the two separate lenses the eyes saw something that appeared to be in three dimensions. The picture appeared to have depth.
With Google’s VR (Virtual Reality), we also need to start with a picture, which because things have advanced a bit since the turn of the last century, can now be in motion. The double photos that you stuck in the stereopticon are now replaced by your cell phone. The cell phone can present motion and sound. But where do you get the goods?
We were impressed with a free app from the New York Times called “NYT VR.” Within the app, we tapped “The Fight for Fallujah,” about the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. This is right up to the moment. We were on the ground with Iraqi forces as they retook the city from ISIS. The city is in ruins and there’s a headless body in the road, but you don’t get close enough to be sick. At the refugee camp, an Iraqi woman with a family of eight tells you it’s heaven compared to her past: At least there is food, she says. As you turn your head from left to right, up and down and even behind you, there’s lots to see. The city, once home to 300,000 people is a total mess. In calmer scenes with no war, we swam with whales, walked through New York and went to Pluto (still embarrassed by not being a planet).
Others are in this game. Sony’s PlayStation VR is $500 or you can spend $600 for a viewer from Oculus Rift. We can expect wide open competition soon. If you want to see what’s out there before spending a nickel, look up “virtual reality” or “VR” apps in your phone’s app store. Each one we looked at had an option to also view the video without VR.
Back to the cheaper future for a moment: The Cardboard viewer app has a 30-second intro. with a forest and a fox waiting for you to follow him. A minute later, you fly with seagulls, a noisy crowd. The NYT VR app has a dozen video choices. Each time you select a new one you have a choice of downloading the video or streaming it. Unless you have a super-fast Internet connection, it’s best to download.
Fun and Food Games
We love it when readers suggest apps. That’s how we heard about “Yes Chef,” a free app for the iPad and iPhone.
Yes Chef is a cooking robot who reads the recipe to you. We said, “Chef, let’s get started,” and it offered a dozen recipe suggestions. You can be more specific if you wish, saying for example, “Chef, Charred Broccoli Salad.” Then, “What’s the first step?” The chef will tell you what to do and say how much of an ingredient you need. You can pause the recipe recital by saying “pause.” This is great fun, and prevents sticky hands from gumming up your iPad. It makes cooking feel like a game.
Speaking of games, we recently started watching “Wheel of Fortune” again, after years away. They have a new app: “Wheel of Fortune Free Play,” which is much improved. This was all so exciting, even peripatetic. Joy had to take a nap.
“Allo” is what “Hello” sounds like if you’re French. It’s also a free text messaging app for your smart phone. It’s getting a ton of publicity, both good and bad. We like it.
Critics say it fails in its primary purpose: providing you the information you need during a conversation. Picky, picky. If your primary purpose is fun, the app succeeds quite well.
In the text messaging window, “Google Assistant” is always there, ready to tap. The Assistant prompts you to you set up reminders, book a flight, get the latest sports scores, get movie show times, put an item on your calendar, or find a restaurant nearby –all while you’re still in the text-messaging window. This can be handy if you’re texting someone and need the info but don’t want to leave the messaging app to get it. (Some criticism comes in because sometimes you click on a link and go on the web, instead of staying in the chat window.)
The Assistant can also launch one of several games, display a poem, and answer your questions, all without leaving the chat area. This led us to play word and geography games and read some fun Emily Dickinson poems.