Suddenly, virtual reality (VR) seems to be everywhere. But what can you and your kids do with this emerging technology? Over the past 18 months or so, manufacturers have released a slew of VR headsets—and even more are due out before the holidays. Tons of content is available, too, although not all of it is suitable for kids. If you want your children to start using this tech, you can play a big role in helping to make VR a highly positive experience for them.
First Things First: What is VR?
Essentially, VR lets you look around (and often interact with) 3D or 360-degree content--usually just by moving your head while wearing a headset. Nearby objects look as though they're in the foreground, while distant objects seem to be in the background, just as they do in real life. VR headsets range in price from under $5 for some Google Cardboard viewers to as much as $800 for HTC Vive or $600 for Oculus Rift.
In November, Sony is expected to roll out the PlayStation VR gaming system, and Google will launch the Daydream, a $90 viewer made of fabric rather than cardboard. Unlike the Cardboard, the Daydream will strap around the user's head and will come with a handheld controller. Google plans different content for its two VR viewers.
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That means the VR headset you choose will dictate what kinds of content your family can use. Some VR apps are available for multiple headsets, but many are available for only one of them, whether it be Cardboard at the low end or the Vive at the high end.
Which Headset Should You Choose?
For the most part, you get what you pay for. As you'd expect, the pricey Vive and Rift offer the best graphics and the most immersive VR environments, at the cost of needing to be connected to a fairly high-end PC.
Vive has one unique advantage: something called Roomscale VR that allows you to walk around inside the environment, rather than staying seated or standing in one position.
Standalone headsets--ones which don't require a PC--use a smartphone instead, which you insert into the viewer. The strappable Samsung Gear VR ($90) offers high-content quality for the price, but you have to use it with a Samsung Galaxy S6 or newer. Those phones can be quite expensive unless you buy one used or get a good trade-in offer. A number of other headsets are available, including Mattel's View-Master VR Viewers.
If your family is just getting into VR, you might want to start small with Google Cardboard and see how things go. Google sells its own Cardboard viewer, which really is made of cardboard, but it also sells viewers from about 20 other companies on its website, and some of these alternative models are made of heavier-duty material. Other non-Google cardboard viewers are available at sites such as Amazon and eBay.
The Cardboard viewers work with iPhones and with many different Android phones. You can find lots of VR apps by going to Google Play or Apple's App Store and searching for "Cardboard VR" or just "VR.". The quality of these apps is uneven. In looking at the comments, you might come across remarks from users complaining that an app is glitchy, doesn't store results, or doesn't offer more than one level of play. Pay attention to these remarks; you don't want your kids' first VR experiences to be frustrating.
It's Not For All Ages
Just because you can try VR at home doesn't mean that you have to! You know your own kids best. If your child is prone to motion sickness, be forewarned that this is sometimes a problem with VR. Other kids may experience eye fatigue.
Your child's age is another major consideration. Preschoolers should never use VR equipment without adult supervision. VR viewers contain small parts that may be choking hazards, and some viewers have sharp edges.
Kids need to be able to stand or sit still while looking through the VR viewer. Remember that a VR headset blocks your vision of the surrounding room, and can also affect balance, since you're seeing something different in the headset than is happening in real life.
The age appropriateness of the content you choose is another important consideration. Some of the most compelling content for Cardboard are apps like murder mysteries that might be too dark for kids or shoot-'em-ups that you might not want your kids to experience. But there's also some great family-oriented content, such as InCell, an educational racing game set inside the microcosm of a human cell.
Several manufacturers recommend minimum ages for their viewer hardware. Mattel suggests that its View-Master VR is for children ages 7 through 12. The minimum age for the Vive is just 7, but the minimum for the Rift and the Gear is 13.
Some experts contend that companies have adopted these recommendations mostly for reasons of legal liability. VR is still so new that no one knows whether it might affect child development in unexpected ways. On the other hand, lots of under-12-year-olds are happily using tech like the Gear or the Rift under parental guidance.
Your kids might be hankering hard for VR viewers for Christmas or Hanukkah. As a parent, you need to figure out whether your kids should use VR at all—and if so, on what platforms and at which ages.
Here are some cool things that you can do with your kids on four different VR platforms.
Fun Things to Do With Google Cardboard
You and your kids can try out Cardboard VR for even less than $5 by making your own. All you need are cardboard, scissors, magnets, lenses, Velcro, and a rubber band. If you don't have these items around the house already, you buy them at a hardware or 99-cent store, or order them online. For the cardboard, even a pizza box will do.
On its website, Google has posted detailed directions for creating your own Cardboard. There are also a slew of how-to videos on YouTube, like this one:
Once you've constructed the viewers, kids can use crayons, stickers, and other decorations to personalize them.
You can also use stuff that your kids are already familiar with as your first VR content. By downloading an app called Cardboard Camera, you can convert any photo—from last year's summer vacation, say, or from a family reunion—into a virtual 3D image.
VR Cinema lets you repurpose any 2D digital video you have on hand for use with Cardboard. The app doesn't really transform them into 3D videos, but you will get an ultra-large viewing screen for viewing in 2D.
In terms of downloadable apps, even young children can enjoy Titans of Space, a tour of the solar system that's also available for the Vive and the Rift (at much higher resolution). The app comes with text about the planets and their moons, plus a nice sound track. Voice narration is available as an in-app purchase.
Cardboard is compatible with all of the 3D and 360-degree videos on YouTube VR. Here, you'll need to be a careful curator, because the videos on YouTube VR include work by professionals and by amateurs with varying levels of expertise.
It makes sense to look for videos on subjects that kids aren't already completely familiar with—especially videos with lots of movement and depth of field. Your kids may have been on a real rollercoaster, but probably not often. VR rollercoaster apps are a big hit with some (but not all) kids.
Fun Things to Do With View-Master VR
Mattel now makes two versions of its View-Master VR toy: the original viewer, issued at the end of 2015, and the recently released "Deluxe" model. Both have a cool retro appearance reminiscent of the View-Masters you might have used during your own childhood—but as their name suggests, these new viewers let you and your kids access VR content.
The Deluxe model costs $40—about $10 more than the original. It introduces features such as an improved hinge for keeping the phone in place, adjustable lenses, and a handheld controller. Neither model comes with a strap.
You can use either View-Master to view any Cardboard content, as well as View-Master-specific VR still shots, which come on reels, just like the 2D reels from the old days.
Your kids may initially find that View-Master content is a bit static, but you can show them how to tilt their heads forward and backward and twirl their necks to navigate through it in VR.
As teachers are finding about VR for the classroom, this type of content tends to work better when used in the context of a lesson. You don't need to develop a formal lesson plan, of course, but you might find that View-Master's VR animal views are a great way to supplement and reinforce what your kids learn on a trip to the zoo.
A View-Master reel about the solar system offers a "minigame" for each planet, calling on kids to counteract the effects of gravity in various planetary atmospheric environments.
Fun Things to Do With Gear VR
Content for the Samsung Gear VR can be pretty spectacular, considering that the device costs just $90. The Gear and its apps are produced by Oculus, the same company that makes the high-end Rift. Many Gear and Rift apps are the much the same, although the image resolution is lower on the Gear versions.
Cool apps that your kids might love include a gorgeous underwater experience called Ocean Rift, a VR version of MineCraft, and House of Languages—a cute app for teaching children vocabulary words in English, Spanish, and German. Each is available in versions for the Gear and the Rift.
You can also access content on Google VR for the Gear, but you'll need to use the Gear's built-in browser (instead of a browser on the Samsung phone) to see the videos in VR. You can catch more info about both the Gear and the Rift at the Oculus Store on the web.
Fun Things to Do With HTC Vive
If you've already invested in a Vive or a Rift, it's probably for the teen gamer in your family. Undoubtedly, teens who are into adventure games have well-defined wish lists, though you should review any requests. Some games, like Serious Sam, Raw Data, and The Brookhaven Experiment are probably not for the younger set.
Nevertheless, there are a slew of cool apps for the Vive that will appeal to one and all.
A Disney VR app includes some VR episodes of Star Wars and The Jungle Book. Other standout apps take advantage of the Vive's Room Scale VR. In CloudLands VR MiniGolf, for example, you'll feel as though you are actually golfing on a mystical miniature golf course. And some adorable puzzle games are great for the whole family, like Waddle Home.
To see more Vive apps, go to HTC's Viveport app store.
Main image: Sergey Galyonkin/Flickr