For all the hullabaloo about “VR is the future of gaming” or “VR is dead in the water,” one thing remains clear: You can’t perform surgery with a PlayStation (yet?), but you can with VR. You can also treat a soldier’s PTSD, cheer on a comedian alongside an actual human audience, or make some bonafide art. Point being, VR is and always has been a tool for more than video games, and we’d be fools for thinking it’ll vanish for another decade or two just because VR games have struggled to break out.
The best non-game VR apps are what will hopefully keep the technology thriving long enough that eventually anyone and their mother can afford a powerful headset. We’re here to show you just which ones to show off.
Google Earth VR
Price: Free | Headsets: Rift, Vive, Go
The absolute king of non-game VR experiences, in my humble opinion, although certainly not the easiest for the less tech savvy. I’ve had the good fortune of introducing people of all ages to Google Earth VR, and particularly for the elderly, the experience can often be an emotional one. Though not every square yard of the earth is rendered immaculately (your rural town might be a little, uh, flatter than usual), the feeling of being transported back to a childhood street or a place in the city your friends used to meet up at is something that can hit a person pretty hard.
My own father, an elderly trucker, managed to find the Nevada desert road where he and a friend were stopped by rifle-toting federal agents for getting too close to Area 51, or so he tells me. Regardless, my old man managed to follow the twisting roads back to the Vegas area school he used to teach at, and I’m sorry, that’s just pretty darn cool. Google Earth VR still has a little ways to go (a “search by address” feature would be nice, along with less floating obelisks in the streets), but it’s an absolute must for anyone using VR.
Price: Free | Headsets: Oculus Rift
How much you like Aircar depends on your definition of what a game/experience is, but nonetheless, it’s is a hidden gem among a sea of smaller VR experiences. The whole gist is right there in the title. You drive a little hovercraft around a dense, Blade Runner-like city, all set to some really subtle, moody electronic music. Dozens of other hovering vehicles float along the city streets, and larger transports rise up above the skyscrapers, all while rain collects on your windshield.
For as many VR space flight games as there are, Aircar manages to get to the point the fastest and in the most accessible form. Aircar, to me, is the science fiction equivalent of pulling off the road and taking a minute to enjoy the peace and isolation that only your car can provide, so much so that it's become my meditation app over actual meditation apps.
Anne Frank House VR
Price: Free | Headsets: Oculus Rift, GearVR
One of the things you most hear about the Anne Frank house tour (the real one) is that it feels like a place frozen in time. Desolate, ghostly quiet, but still harboring those flickers of life that surely carried Anne Frank, her family, and several of their friends through two years of hiding. For such a simple concept (you teleport from tiny room to tiny room of the Frank’s annex home, built using beautifully rendered 3D scans of the real home), it’s shocking how well this VR tour captures that haunting stillness.
I stood silent as a tomb, as if I were among a real tour group, hearing the real birds outside her window and listening to narrated versions of her unfinished diary entries. VR is great at evoking plenty of emotions—fear, awe, discomfort—but never before have I felt such quiet wonder at so simple an experience.
The Foo Show
Price: Free demo, $5 per episode | Headsets: Oculus Rift, Vive
You may recognize Will Smith (the other one) from an infamous Giant Bomb clip, where his virtual body collapses in on itself as he takes his headset off, and because VR was still fresh, not even Jeff Gerstmann was quite prepared. The Foo Show itself is a fun jaunt through the world of game and film development. Smith joins some developers in a VR TV studio, where viewers can don their headset and watch like a real studio audience. Then Smith usually accompanies the developers to a VR version of a notable location from their game, where they go in-depth about how they built their world. It’s fascinating stuff, and Smith is a very likeable host. There hasn’t been any word on a season two, which sucks, but it’s hard not to see how innovative the Foo Show is when it really gets going.
Price: $14.99 | Headsets: Oculus Rift, Vive
Good art takes time, and hopefully you don’t have to actually do time for it. Kingspray Graffiti lets you tag everything from a brick wall to a bus to a train car, and you can even do it with some buddies. Kingspray Graffiti sports some pretty welcoming tutorials, so you won’t be dribbling paint the entire time. Even if you are, the magic of VR allows for unlimited do-overs so you aren’t pulling any Banksy shred jobs.
Price: Free | Headsets: Oculus Rift, Vive, Windows Mixed Reality
Don’t get me wrong. Virtual reality social gatherings are still, to put it simply, the worst. Altspace is...a little better. The developers respond well enough to input from the community, and the number of things they’ve got for users to do (or at least try) is impressive. Aside from the typical meet-and-greets, Altspace hosts some surprisingly unique ones, like a Women of VR gathering, live stand-up comedy sessions from the likes of Drew Carey and Reggie Watts, and even D&D sessions. They’ve done an admirable job of keeping things relatively fresh, accessible, and not overly terrifying.
Price: Free (Beta) | Headsets: Oculus Rift, Vive, Windows Mixed
While Altspace might be about chatting with strangers, Big Screen tends to be about shutting up and watching some movies with friends. The community aspect of Altspace also means you have a bit less customization available. Thankfully, Big Screen will let you adjust your view to be as big or little as you like, or pull up Steam and just start playing some non-VR games in VR, you elite.
Price: $19.99 | Headsets: Oculus Rift, Vive
Without a doubt, the best casual-level tool for making 3D art in VR, and it certainly puts up a fight when it comes to more professional artwork, too. All you have to do is look at some of the stunning pieces created by artists to get your own creative motors running, and Tilt Brush makes it surprisingly easy to get started on your own path. It’s an incredible amount of fun to give your art a neon glow, or scale it up and down so you can focus on the tiniest of detail, or, you know, just set it on fire.
Price: Free | Headsets: Oculus, Vive, Windows Mixed
You know those ads going around with Jonah Hill and Adam Levine watching basketball in VR? Yep, that’s NextVR. A little slice of cable programming in your headset. Their current lineup includes some random NBA games, lots of stand-up comedy, and just as many musical performances. Not exactly DirecTV, but how else are you going to afford courtside seats with friends by your side? If you can stomach the fact that it’s 360 degree video and not true VR, it’s a perfectly good time.
Price: $14.99 | Oculus, Vive, Windows Mixed
Though it was one of the first of its kind, Virtual Desktop has stuck around by, well, just being really good. Blow up your desktop’s output and get that 30-foot wraparound monitor you’ve always wanted. Some built-in features include Milkdrop for music visual effects, 360 degree video playback, a game launcher with voice support, and the ability to edit your environment of choice.
Price: $19.99 | Oculus, Vive, Windows Mixed
One of VR’s biggest issues is the disconnect users feel when their hands fail to grab onto simple objects because of tracking issues. Vinyl Reality manages to sidestep most of those problems for a shockingly tight turntable DJing experience. Make your own music? Upload it and flex those fingers. Worried about accidentally losing the tempo? BPM settings can either make things accessible enough for newcomers or challenging enough for longtime fans.