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Fantasy meets reality: the best ways to entertain yourself in virtual reality

Call it Nelson’s First Law of Technology: Great inventions become greater tools for entertainment, regardless of their original purposes.

The camera made way for the selfie. The Internet fed our inner cat-video cravings and birthed YouTube. Virtual reality is the latest technological advancement made accessible to millions of consumers with the introduction of the Oculus Rift, Samsung’s Gear VR, and Google Cardboard.

Virtual Reality has always been tied to entertainment, from its roots in 1962’s Sensorama to The Lawnmower Man to today. It’s just better than ever: On-stage with Paul McCartney from your airplane seat? Brought to you in minutes with Jaunt VR. Underwater exploration from your bedroom? Enjoy Deep Sea Dive for the Oculus Rift. In 2016, you’ll go to a virtual reality theme park where you’ll walk through an experience of your own.

Digital Trends examines five key areas of virtual entertainment, and where VR will take us in the future.


NextVR NBA Image used with permission by copyright holder

You’re at the top of the key as Los Angeles Clippers shooting guard JJ Reddick — one of the most prolific three-point shooters of all time — perfectly nails shot after impossible shot, while his voice teaches you the art of the jumper. That’s one of the numerous virtual reality practice sessions the NBA offers on Samsung Gear VR. Virtual reality footage of the 2015 NBA All Star Game, including the show-stopping Dunk Contest performance from Zach Lavine of the Minnesota Timberwolves, is also being made available for the Samsung Gear VR in installments.

This past February, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and a few NBA executives visited Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) to explore new technologies to implement in the NBA. VHIL is a virtual reality environment equipped with speakers pulsating from the walls and floors as users, cameras and motion sensors tracking the users’ movements as computers feed video into their Oculus Rift headset. Silver tested the VHIL and was bullish on its potential: “This could let fans experience what it’s like to stand on the free throw line with two seconds left in a tie game and 19,000 people screaming at you.”

The NBA is the only one of the major U.S. sport leagues to release virtual reality footage, but NASCAR and the NHL have begun testing the technology over the past few months. Millions of people may soon be able to purchase tickets to sit next to Jack Nicholson — or whomever he sells his tickets to — at Lakers games in the comfort of their virtual reality headset.


Revolt: Big Sean Blessings
Revolt: Big Sean Blessings Image used with permission by copyright holder

Being onstage during an artist’s performance is a euphoric fan moment usually reserved for band members and entourages. But virtual reality software company JauntVR has captured footage that can help you stand next to Jack White as he shreds through Freedom at 21 at The Bleacher Theater at Fenway Park. Or stand feet from the explosions, the thousands of raucous fans, and Paul McCartney himself performing Live and Let Die at Candlestick Park. Jaunt recently released VR footage of an exclusive performance by Kanye West’s artist Big Sean performing his hit single Blessings.

The next step after virtually placing you in the performance is making you the performance. Bjork’s virtual reality music video for her song Stonemilker has the eccentric singer split in two; you choose which Bjork you want to hear those breakup lyrics from. Heineken set up a virtual wall in its Heineken House at the Ultra Music Festival that emits the sounds of cheering fans and camera flashes of “virtual paparazzi” like you were really walking down the red carpet.

It won’t be long before American Idol is nothing more than people with virtual reality headsets singing to a live audience. Think Black Mirror meets Surrogate.


Somniacs Image used with permission by copyright holder

Even the greatest cinematic achievements are inherently oppressive to the viewer. The camera tells you what to look at and the linear plot guides you contextually. Virtual reality is in its early stages of making you the spectator, director, and — in some form — the actor of movies. You’re in the backseat of a van involved in a car chase. You can look forward to see how narrowly your car comes from colliding with others, or you can turn your head and watch the onlookers videotaping the chase.  That’s a peak into what virtual reality can do for your favorite film.

Face oncoming trains and attacking crows from your smartphone in Insurgent: Max VR — just like in the 2015 film Insurgent. And it gets wilder from there. DigitalDomain, the visual effect company responsible for the Tupac hologram at Coachella 2014, produced the 210-second short film Evolution of Verse. It’s the first 3D virtual reality film fully rendered in CGI, and was released at the 2015 Sundance Festival. Evolution of Verse is currently available for viewing on Google Cardboard through the VRSE app on Google Play and the App Store.

Spectating a photo-realistic rendering of a movie is one thing, controlling the movie is another. Oculus is developing a virtual reality movie of Lost, whose plot is directly affected by the viewer. Zurich University of the Arts’ visual installation Birdly straps viewers into a contraption that hoists them up and blows air in their face — it’s a virtual reality experience that replicates what it is like to fly like a bird.

Soon you’ll be able to feel exactly like Nelly Furtado.


Hero Bound: First Steps
Hero Bound: First Steps Image used with permission by copyright holder

Virtual reality has turned Pong into a high-speed death match with Proton Pulse. Oculus will put you in the pilot’s seat in an impending intergalactic war for its upcoming untitled games.

Virtual reality gaming is still relatively young, so it’s far from a simple pick up and play thing. Games such as the Zelda-esque Hero Bound: First Steps and horror game Dreadhalls — both on Samsung Gear VR — require an external controller. But don’t fret, there is a truly hands-free virtual reality future ahead for gaming. Neurotechnology company MindMaze is set to release the first virtual reality game system you can control with your thoughts.

Mindmaze promises that MindLeap will be compatible with XBOX and Playstation as well as iOS and Android devices. Last year, Rockstar introduced a first-person mode for Grand Theft Auto V for the first time in the franchise’s history for the PS4 and Xbox One to much fanfare. Don’t be surprised if Grand Theft Auto: Virtual Reality manifests from the masochistic recesses of your mind into reality. No longer separated by a TV screen and remote control, you can become the Master Chief of your gaming experience.


Image used with permission by copyright holder

Teleportation is a few quantum leaps from being a reality, but not from being a virtual reality.

With the help of panoramic photographs, 360Cities places you in the center of the Kivukoni Fish Market off the shores of Tanzania as Martin Broomsfield explains the fishing culture. Travel through the halls of history at the World Trade Center museum with Jook Leong.

EarthCam broadcasts live footage from hundreds of locations across the world to your computer for free. Adding a virtual reality component to those streams will have you vacationing to Waikiki on your morning commute. An immersive 360-degree virtual escape to tropical islands has not been scaled to fit inside your pocket, yet, but that future is closer than you may think. Last September, Marriott Hotels unveiled The Transporter, a makeshift booth wherein people experience a 360-degree visual immersion into various hotel locations across the world through Oculus Rift headsets.

A man was able to watch his third son’s birth in Perth, Australia while he was over 2,500 miles away as if he was really there with a Samsung Gear VR. Toyota is teaching safe driving by having drivers strap on an Oculus Rift while behind the wheel. A woman was even proposed to with the help of Google Cardboard.

Sony’s Project Morpheus and Facebook’s Oculus Rift are expected to reach consumers by the first half of 2016. Everyone from Adult Swim to ABC Family are using virtual reality to turn their audience from spectators to 2016 promises to be a watershed year for the commercialization of virtual reality and by the end of that year could Either that or Google pasted together six GoPro cameras for nothing.

See you in the (virtual) future.

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Keith Nelson Jr.
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Keith Nelson Jr is a music/tech journalist making big pictures by connecting dots. Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY he…
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