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How to get started with Virtual Reality

By Tom Morgan

Explore the benefits of virtual reality, augmented reality, and find out how to get started with nothing but your phone and a cheap VR headset.

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Virtual reality – or VR for short – is a technology that lets you explore jaw-dropping virtual worlds using nothing but your smartphone and a VR headset. The number of breathtaking, interactive experiences is growing every day, so now's a great time to get involved.

If you've heard of VR before and want to experience it for yourself, it's quick, cheap and easy to get started. Below, we've rounded up some of the best free VR experiences around, also noting some popular VR headsets you can buy online or in shops.

Mobile VR is best experienced on a speedy smartphone with a big screen. Head over to our best smartphones page to see which models we recommend.

What is VR and how does it work? 

You can use a VR app with either an iPhone or Android smartphone. It's a quick process install a VR app, slide your phone into a compatible VR headset and put it on.

When you use a virtual reality app, your smartphone's display is split in two and an image is duplicated on both sides of the screen. Through the headset, the two images come together to give the illusion that you’re looking at a single, moving image. Some VR headsets come bundled with a controller, which means you can use your fingers to 'walk' around inside a VR app while you look around.

VR on a smartphone is the cheapest option – it's a great way to get started

There are lots of VR headsets on the market for phones, computers and games consoles. VR on a smartphone is the cheapest option, and even though the visual quality and frame rate (which affects the smoothness and speed of the action on-screen) aren't as good as high-end alternatives, it's a great way to get started.

High-end VR headsets for PC, like the £500 HTC Vive and £400 Oculus Rift S, along with PlayStation's £250 VR headset, are great for gamers.

Free virtual reality apps and experiences 

It's still fairly early days for VR, but there are already thousands of fantastic free apps to try right away.

Take a ride on a rollercoaster

Ride on a virtual rollercoaster to experience the thrill of VR. There are a range of free roller coaster apps you can download from the Google Play store, and you can even ride real world rollercoasters that have been filmed using 360-degree cameras. Wearing a virtual reality headset you can look up, down and around as you hurtle across the track, take in the fear and excitement of others on the ride – and you'll always get a front row seat.

Relax on a beach

The potential of VR is vast, and one area where it's expected to have a real impact is healthcare. From relaxing anxious patients with serene settings and helping children to feel more at home to aiding in recovery, VR has the potential to improve lives. It can also help to overcome more common fears like heights, creepy crawlies or public speaking.

Travel the world through 360-degree photos

Interactive video experiences let you travel the world from the comfort of your own home. Visiting places you've never seen before, or reliving memories of a favourite holiday destination is easy with VR. You could take a trip into space to explore the solar system, or use any of a range of educational apps to help children improve their geography and world knowledge.

One of the most popular developments in VR is the ability to take your own 360-degree photos and videos. Most smartphones are capable of taking a 'virtual photo', which you can then view in full 360 degrees with a headset, which is a great way to show off your holiday snaps.

Experience interactive trailers and TV shows

YouTube is a hive of treasures for those who want to enjoy virtual reality. Using a dedicated app on your phone, you can search for 360-degree videos to watch interactive short films, trailers and unique experiences. Some of the most fascinating picks we've tried include a virtual tour of Buckingham Palace, a trip above the Grand Canyon and a virtual dive with great white sharks.

VR headsets for iPhone and Android  

The great thing about VR is it's cheap and easy to get started. If you have a smartphone and you want to try VR for yourself, all you need is a headset to pop it into. Popular picks for newbies are perfectly affordable.

  Compatibility (screen size) What is it?

 Google cardboard table

Google Cardboard

4 - 6 inches

The cheapest and simplest way to get involved in VR. Google Cardboard is exactly what it sounds like – a VR headset made almost entirely out of cardboard, save for some lenses and Velcro to hold things together.

Unlike alternatives from Google and Samsung, there are no bells and whistles here – there isn't even a headstrap to keep it in place, so you have to hold it up to your eyes.

 Samsung gear vr table

Samsung Gear VR 2017

Select Samsung smartphones

The third iteration of Samsung's Gear VR. It was released alongside the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8 plus and is designed to support the USB-C connection on those phones.

Otherwise, there aren't any major differences between the headsets themselves – a refreshed design and a slightly larger field of view is about it.

 Google daydream table

Google Daydream View

Select 'Daydream-ready' smartphones

The original version of the Google Daydream, which offers a wider range of smartphone compatibility than Samsung's Gear VR.

Along with its own Pixel phones, this includes models from Huawai, Motorola and Samsung. It also comes with a controller to help you navigate virtual worlds and is available with a range of finishes, such as slate, snow and crimson.

What is augmented reality? 

Augmented reality places a virtual object in a real environment, with that object visible through the display of your smartphone or tablet. These objects can look very lifelike, changing as you move around them or get closer or further away, just as if they were actually there.

There are lots of applications where this technology can come in useful, such as placing furniture in a room or 'painting' the walls before you decorate. It's becoming more commonly used for GPS navigation in high-end cars, and broader applications includes medical training, construction and repair.

There are two main types of augmented reality: marker-based and markerless.

Marker-based AR

This system uses a visual marker to function – a QR code, for example. Your phone's camera picks up on the position of the QR code and replaces that symbol with an object.

Markerless AR

Markerless AR is now fairly common. The system uses the accelerometer inside your mobile phone to determine how your movements should change the size and appearance of an object on your screen. It runs more smoothly on modern smartphones with more processing power.

AR vs VR: what's the difference? 

Unlike augmented reality, a virtual-reality experience is all contained in an enclosed space. You'll need to wear a headset to experience a VR app, but you won't see anything unfolding in from of you – it's set in a virtual world instead. In other words, VR uses a digital environment, whereas AR overlays virtual objects to real-world environments.

Try these AR apps

Ikea - for shopping (iOS, Android)

Ikea's AR app aims to make it easier for you to visualise a product in your home. You select a piece of furniture through the app, and then point your smartphone camera at an empty space in your living room. The product will magically appear in that space on your display, helping you to get a sense of how it will look if you decide to buy it.

Google Translate - for abroad (iOS, Android)

If you're on a holiday abroad and find yourself trying to make sense of the local signs or restaurant menus, Google Translate can lend a helping hand.

Thanks to AR, you don't have to waste time manually typing in phrases on the app. Instead, point your smartphone camera at some text you want the app to translate, and wait for it to generate the English version in real time. You can download language packs to speed up the process, as it means you won't need an internet connection to get results.

AR Measurekit - for DIY (iOS)

Your smartphone can double as an effective tape measure thanks to AR.

Download Measurekit and you'll be able to measure real-world objects and spaces using the iPhone or iPad's camera. There are nine separate tools bundled into the app, including Ruler (measure straight lines), Trajectory (measure by 'drawing'), Marker Pin (measure distance from fixed points) and Cube (visualize how big something is).

This ruler app is only available on iOS, but there are plenty of similar apps on Android. ARuler - AR Ruler app and Floorplanner is a popular choice.

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