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Swimming with Whales: Virtual Reality Has Arrived

June 2016

It's unlikely that I'll ever have the pleasure of swimming with sperm whales, which are about the size of a bus and weigh up to 110,000 pounds. But I came close, and it only cost $9.

The New York Times has an amazing smartphone app that you can use with an inexpensive virtual reality viewer. You're under water and as you look left and right, up and down, you see whales, dolphins, fish, and free-diving humans. Turn around, and there's a whale close behind you.

All the while you hear through your earbuds the clicking sound they make in order to "see" your body. Their vocalizations are a kind of sonar that they use to construct a 3D image of your body, as they try to figure out if your friend or foe, or perhaps food.

This is virtual reality on the cheap. When choosing between the newly released state-of-the-art Oculus Rift virtual reality viewer at $1,500 and Google Cardboard at $9, I chose the latter. It's not perfect, but it gives you a sense for the possibilities.

What's Google Cardboard? It's a simple viewer that has lenses and a place to put your smartphone. You view your smartphone through the lenses. You download virtual reality apps that are specifically created for Google Cardboard, such as the NY Times VR app.

When you run a Cardboard app on your smartphone, the video actually plays in two windows on the display, side by side, one for each eye. The lenses, just like a 3D movie in theaters, give you the perception of being in a three-dimensional space with a wide field of view.

In addition to the 3-D effect, the viewer also takes advantage of the various sensors on a smartphone, such as the accelerometer and gyroscope, to track your head movements. So as you look up and down and in different directions, the video changes accordingly.

Google launched Cardboard in mid-2014 in order to make virtual reality cheaply accessible to everyone, and many companies now make viewers. Like the name implies, you can purchase low-end viewers made of cardboard. Or you can spend a bit more and get one made out of plastic.

I bought the QPAU on Amazon and downloaded the Google Cardboard app onto my iPod Touch. (My Android phone is apparently too old to run Cardboard.) The Cardboard app pairs with your viewer by using your phone's camera to snap the QR code that comes with your viewer.

There are some demos in the Google Cardboard app that people rave about, but the app kept crashing on my old iPod Touch when I tried to view them. But I was able to view the videos in the NY Times VR app. And I also downloaded some games.

The games worked perfectly, but the videos in the NY Times app had a double image. Larger images, such as the whales, looked fine, but smaller ones were double. The stereoscopic effect wasn't working the best

I found out online it's because the distance between the pupils of my eyes doesn't match the distance assumed by the viewer. The solution would be to spend a bit more money to buy a viewer with adjustable lenses. I saw one on Amazon for $15.

Or I could buy the Oculus Rift, which came out in late March for $1,500 (including a high-end Windows computer to power the graphics). It not only has the 3D and head-tracking features of Google Cardboard, but also controllers so that you can do a lot more, such as play games. The experience is so real that riding a virtual reality roller coaster seems like the real thing to your brain. Your body reacts just as if you were on an actual roller coaster. Expect your stomach to get a bit queasy.

Facebook bought Oculus Rift from the 21-year-old inventor Palmer Luckey in 2014 for a cool $2.5 billion. Famed CEO Mark Zuckerberg says virtual reality is the future. We'll interact with our Facebook friends in virtual reality, we'll take virtual reality vacations, etc.

If you want better than Google Cardboard, but want to spend less than the Oculus Rift, go for a Samsung Gear VR for about $100. User reviews say it's totally awesome. Again, it works with a smartphone, in this case specific phones made by Samsung, and entails downloading apps: games, nature videos, movies, and more.

The main problem with virtual reality is that you look dumb: you're wearing a headset, turning in different directions. But, hey, I'm not worried about that.

This month's hot tip:

Fakespot tells you whether Amazon user reviews are fake. Just paste in the URL, and Fakespot will return a grade between A (genuine) and F (mostly fake).

© 2016 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen