First Cardboard Apps: Mixed Bag But Mostly Cool

As I posted yesterday, I got a ViewMaster VR Viewer Starter Kit for Christmas and soon found myself whiling away considerable time downloading and exploring a number of 3D/VR experiences from various publishers and outlets. My intent was — and is — to sample an eclectic variety of apps, to get a basic idea of the range of ideas and subjects covered as well as quality of resolution, interaction, engagement and value.

Here, in no particular order, are the ones I’ve experienced so far, with a few comments here and there. Note that all of these experiences were downloaded from the Apple AppStore for iOS.

Vrse is a New York Times channel for exploration and experimentation with VR as a delivery vehicle for news and news features. The app contains 14 separate VRticles (I just invented that word, I think),of which I have viewed three. The overall quality is quite good. Graphic resolution is crisp, movement is smooth for the most part, the audio is appropriate and well-done. I was deeply affected by one piece called “Waves of Grace” about the West African outbreak of the Ebola virus. I anticipate enjoying the other content in this app in coming days.

VR Planet Defense is a made-for-VR game reminiscent of the practically ancient game Asteroids. It’s one of only two pure games I’ve played so far and it’s a good bit of fun. The graphics are cartoony and not meaningfully 3D. But the action of the game is fast, the sound effects cute and the overall experience is good, though I have no other games to compare to. I’m not really a gamer. This one demonstrates well the main advantage or difference of VR over 3D: head movement tracking. In a 3D situation, you move a camera; in a VR, you sweep over a panorama by moving your head and the device. It’s hard to explain but immediately noticeable. This game did reveal one of the main weaknesses in viewers like the VM model which lack a headband mount. My arms got awfully tired awfully quickly, particularly during periods of intense “asteroid” activity which required rapid motion of the head and shoulders. I’m pretty sure the next viewer I invest in will have to have a head mount.

InMind VR is also a game but it’s apparently intended to have educational value. Or at least its producers are planning future VRs that are educational. It’s a nicely designed short arcade-style adventure game that involves attempting to zap misbehaving neurons in the brain in which the simulated adventure takes place. The idea that gazing at an object causes events to occur is quite engaging. (Just another way of saying head movement tracking is integral to the VR experience.) This one was a lot of fun and the narration had some clever humor that added to the enjoyment.

Jurassic Dinosaurs was one of the big hits Christmas day with me and my family. To a haunting drumbeat, you find yourself in a Jurassic Park kind of VR immersion with large and small dinosaurs running around, eating stuff. Exploring the entire area is quite entertaining. There are things to bump into and get stuck on (like huge boulders and wooden outbuildings) and the almost constant overhead sounds of a helicopter coming and going. The product was quite annoying to get started, however, and the viewer lever’s behavior was mysterious. It was all too easy to end up bounced out of the VR and to a screen promoting some other game or product in the AppStore. And while there are some nice little 3D touches here, there is very little going on that engages you as a participant immersed in the experience. (My 8-year-old granddaughter, however, loved this one!)

Discovery VR was a great find. It contains more than three dozen separate experiences involving nature and science, ranging from surfing to space walking to saving endangered species to touring San Francisco Bay Area locations. The quality of all of the ones I’ve tried so far has been very good, even excellent. Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out how to maneuver within the experience and not infrequently there’s no way that I can find to stop a VR without opening the viewer, double-tapping Home to show all the running apps and force quitting the Discovery VR. (I was amazed how many people didn’t know you could even do that. I have no idea how they’ll get out of those spots.) But the totality of this app is really very high quality.

The last one I’ll look at in this post is inVR. Its current contents, at least as far as I’ve explored them, is fairly disappointing but that’s because it’s all user-generated. So it’s experimental, done mostly by people trying to learn to create VRs for Cardboard. Most of it from what I can tell is really fairly limited in size, scope and interactivity. User engagement is fairly low. But you can get a taste for a whole range of VR environments from a Medieval tavern at midnight to a scholar’s catacomb to a crypt and even a vintage automobile garage. This will probably prove useful as a source of inspiration and ideas for the graphical side of VR more than anything.

I ran across one Web site that was pretty helpful in finding good VRs. Unimersiv bills itself as “The Largest Library of Educational Games and Experiences for Virtual Reality.” It has a huge array of topics to choose from. I know I’ll be spending a lot of my time rummaging around this particular attic in coming weeks as I begin to poke at the idea of learning Unity programming to create some of my own VR content. This page is devoted to VR apps that are Cardboard-compatible.

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