Right now, it feels as if there is no escape. We’re stuck at home for most of the day, our only respite coming from the odd stroll around the block.
But make a list of the things you miss most from your pre-lockdown life and chances are you can probably do some form of them in virtual reality. From travelling abroad to exercising outside, and even visiting friends, it’s all possible if you’re willing to strap on a headset.
Consumer VR technology, although still not perfect, has improved a lot in the past couple of years. The most advanced headsets are the HTC Vive (or its more living-room-friendly variant, Cosmos, from £500), Valve Index (£920) and Oculus Rift S (£400), all of which boast very high definition displays, extraordinary responsiveness and intricate controller tracking – but they’re expensive, quite complicated to set up and they need to be attached via cables to a high-end PC.
There are alternatives. PlayStation VR (£260) plugs into a PS4 console and provides a decent though comparatively low resolution experience with a really vast range of games, including platformer Astro Bot Rescue Mission and epic space exploration sim No Man’s Sky.
Our favourite, though, is the Oculus Quest (from £400), a powerful standalone headset that requires no connection to a PC and feels as comfortable and unintrusive as the tech currently gets. It comes with two wireless controllers that track your arm movements accurately, and the setup process is intuitive: you simply use the controllers to draw out the usable space in your living room, and an external camera makes sure you don’t get carried away and trip over your coffee table.
Apps such as AltSpaceVR have let me meet strangers with weird avatars in virtual hangouts – as unsettling as it sounds
Being freed from a bulky PC opens up the possibilities of VR as a casual home entertainment option. It means you can sit on your sofa (or in bed) and explore space or climb a mountain while your partner is watching TV. Over the past fortnight I’ve been happily trawling YouTube, Amazon and Oculus for short 360-degree VR movies (mostly available for free), and have spent many happy minutes swimming with sharks and gatecrashing LA pool parties. Quest has also made energetic games like the excellent Beat Saber and SuperHot feel safer because you’re not worried about tripping over a cable that’s coming out of your head. Apps such as AltSpaceVR have also let me meet strangers with weird avatars in virtual hangouts, which has been as unsettling as it sounds.
Recently, I may have taken my interest in VR technology a bit far by accepting a Roto VR Chair on loan from British tech startup Roto VR. It looks like a sports car seat mounted on a circular plinth, but it comes with an ingenious head-tracking device that you attach to your VR headset so that the chair rotates in the direction you’re looking.
At first the movement is rather unsettling, but as you get used to it, it adds a rather wonderful sense of being physically present in a world, which is perfect for virtual tourism apps as well as multidirectional games such as Robo Recall. The head-tracking rotation is also meant to cut down on VR motion sickness because it reduces the disparity between the screened activity and our body’s sense of where it is and what it’s doing. (There are also foot pedals to control forward and backward movement, although few games currently support this feature.) It’s expensive at $999 (£800) – Roto VR says most of its pre-orders have been from universities, businesses and arcades – but perhaps if the lockdown goes on much longer, many more living rooms will have one.
Even without a revolving chair, VR games and experiences are now providing a true sense of “presence”, the holy grail of the technology – and for a few minutes every day, I have genuinely forgotten that I’m standing alone in the living room in my pyjamas swinging my arms about.
Here are some of our favourite lockdown apps for VR:
Everest VR: Journey to the Top of the World (Oculus TV; Oculus and Samsung Gear VR)
Jaw-on-the-floor VR documentary with crisp visuals. A must-watch emotional journey from the Alps to the Himalayas, following mountain climbers. If you see just one 360-degree video, make it this one.
Supernatural (Within; Oculus Quest)
Bored with indoor exercise? This cardio fitness app will transport you to stunning photorealistic landscapes for a workout. Put on a fan to feel the breeze, as you bop to pacey daily routines, each accompanied with energising music. We tried it out before launch – it’s a tremendous amount of fun and very sweaty. Similar to Peloton, Supernatural has a library of on-demand fitness programmes. New sessions are released every day, each with a virtual coach who hovers in front of you.
VTime XR (VTime Limited; multiple headsets)
Straightforward but nifty app that will go some way to address what for many people has been the most challenging aspect of lockdown – the inability to visit friends and family in their homes. Upload 360 photos of your dining room and you can recreate a dinner party for up to four people.
The Climb (Crytek; Oculus Quest and Rift)
A thrilling rock-climbing simulator, which feels surprisingly similar to the real-life experience, with players having to select the best route and regularly apply chalk to their hands. Best to do short sessions as you might get a little queasy. Oh, and don’t look down.
Ultrawings (Bit Planet Games; multiple headsets)
Surprisingly decent flight simulator considering the current limitations of VR graphics. Island-hop from airport to airport in a microlight, glider or aerobatic plane.
Bigscreen Cinema (Bigscreen; Multiple major VR headsets)
Several VR apps offer the option of playing films, but none recreate the full experience of heading to the movies like this one. With several blockbusters playing at any one time, enter a cinema lobby with friends and see what’s on. Spillable popcorn and soda included.
Rec Room (Rec Room; multiple headsets)
Rec Room is your go-to app for fun group activities. The visuals are undoubtedly cartoonish, but when you’re splurting off rounds in a paintball game or playing virtual dodgeball with others around the world, you’ll soon forget. Also included are escape rooms, although maybe lockdown is already claustrophobic enough.
Job Simulator (Owlchemy Labs; multiple headsets)
Some of you might even be missing the office by now (ahem, parents?) Job Simulator goes some way to recreate the experience of pre-pandemic employment. Don’t be put off, though, it’s not for workaholics. If you like, you can spend your time throwing coffee mugs at the boss.
Nature Treks VR (GreenerGames; multiple headsets)
A nature exploration and relaxation app recommended to us by VR developer Sam Watts of Make Real: “It has a series of calming interactive scenes you can chill out in and influence, with a yoga breathing mode.”
Sansar (Sansar; Multiple headsets)
Basically, the VR version of experimental virtual world Second Life, now sold by Linden Lab but still in development by much of the same team. “Great if you’re looking for more realistic graphics,” says Dan Page of VR firm Opposable Group. “Its major focus right now is music, but there are all sorts of socials and podcast recordings that regularly take place on the platform.”
The Room VR: A Dark Matter (Fireproof Games; multiple headsets)
A brilliantly designed and truly engrossing VR take on the award-winning smartphone puzzle game series, where you explore an archaeological museum deciphering hidden codes and unlocking intricate devices.
Half-Life Alyx (Valve; multiple headsets)
The long-awaited new addition to the legendary sci-fi shooter series is an absolutely stunning showcase of virtual reality technology, putting you right in the middle of humanity’s fight against alien invaders.
Other games to try
We also recommend: ridiculous comedy romp Accounting+; surreal wildlife adventure Paper Beast; heartwarming action puzzler Moss; the atmospheric Star Wars demo Vader Immortal; and the frenzied multiplayer co-op experiences, Star Trek Bridge Crew, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes and Spaceteam.