| Special to USA TODAY
Many of today’s video games offer incredibly lifelike visuals, but if you’re sitting in front of your television or computer monitor, you’re still seeing the four sides of your screen and the rest of your room around it.
This can ruin the all-important suspension of disbelief.
For an even more immersive experience, many gamers are slipping on a virtual reality (VR) headset to be transported to another world altogether. That is, you are “in” the game, complete with 360-degree visuals, tied to head tracking, therefore wherever you turn your head in real life (up, down, side-to-side, or even looking behind you), your perspective in a first-person game is also mirrored inside the virtual content.
What’s more, audio is also “spatialized” in VR, therefore you can hear sounds all around you, such as a moaning zombie creeping up from behind you or a roaring dinosaur just ahead. Most VR systems also let you “touch” virtual content by using a controller in each hand, or in some cases, using nothing but your hands.
With most VR systems, you’ll be prompted to establish a play area around you using a controller, and should you accidentally get too close to something, such as a wall, you may see a faint outline of the real-world object while inside your virtual world, to alert you. Some games can be played while sitting down, too.
While it took a couple of years to grow from a niche market to a mainstream activity, there are now a variety of VR headsets available.
Headsets, or head-mounted displays (HMDs), are available in one of three flavors: tethered models connected to a PC (like HTC Vive Cosmos, Valve Index, Oculus Rift), or a console (like PSVR); standalone models (like Oculus Quest 2), which are cable-free and can download and store content via WiFi; and a few that require a smartphone to be inserted into the front of the HMD, but not a popular option today. Most headsets can fit comfortably over eyeglasses.
According to Jitesh Ubrani, research manager for IDC’s Mobile and Consumer Device Trackers (which includes VR), the estimated value of the global VR hardware industry was $2.1 billion in 2020, and is expected to grow modestly to about $2.8 billion in 2021 – but projected to balloon to about $10 billion by 2025.
These VR forecast numbers include both tethered and standalone VR headsets, but excludes screenless viewers, such as the Samsung Gear VR or any Google Cardboard-type devices.
“To date, the largest obstacles for VR have been content and pricing,” says Ubrani. “Early on, it used to cost consumers thousands of dollars to get into VR since it required a powerful PC, plus a headset or a console plus a headset.
“Most importantly, content was very limited,” continues Ubrani, based in Toronto. “In the last year or so, the market has expanded substantially as many of those barriers have begun to fade.”
Ubrani believes Facebook has done a “great job” at making VR more accessible, by launching headsets that are quite affordable, such as the Oculus Quest 2 ($299 for the 64GB version or $399 for the 256GB model). An optional Oculus Link Virtual Reality Headset Cable ($79) lets you connect Oculus Quest 2 to a PC, via USB-C port, for added power.
“On the content side, there’s an increasing number of developers who have seen great financial success and the market has also seen the availability of AAA games grow over time,” he adds. “That said, from a consumer perspective, VR still risks being another gaming platform, as other types of content have had limited success.”
Not just for gamers
Outside of games, there are many other VR experiences.
For example, 360-degree videos make you feel like you’re right there, whether it’s a virtual vacation to an African safari or watching a Cirque du Soleil performance.
VR is starting to be used in sports, too, so imagine one day “sitting” in the best seat in the house of your favorite team – while in the comfort of your home.
VR is also being used for education (such as traveling through the human body in a science class), in therapy sessions (including the treatment of phobias, like a fear of spiders or heights), for shopping (virtually walking around malls), communication (chat rooms, boardroom meetings, and online dating), and artistic expression (virtual painting, music collaboration), and more.
“Outside of consumers, VR uptake in enterprise has also been growing and we see a very bright future here as the need for remote collaboration and training will continue to drive adoption,” says Ubrani.
But if it’s games you want, we’ve seen a number of impressive titles debut over the past few months. Here are a few worth considering.
$29.99; rated “Teen”; for Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Windows Mixed Reality, Valve Index
If you like “Fortnite,” “Population: One” takes the “battle royale” formula to the next level.
The Western-themed Season 2 of BigBox VR’s first-person VR game pits eight squads of three players against one another (24 players per match, up from 18 in the original) in an intense fight to the finish, on an expansive map with several distince areas (be sure to try the cemetery area).
Supporting cross-play between the different VR headsets, the multiplayer-only game focuses heavily on a vertical combat system, which lets you scale tall buildings, bridges and windmills, jump and glide down to the ground, all the while shooting at enemies and evading fire.
The controls are intuitive and, surprisingly, the game developers handled motion smoothly to avoid nausea in such a fast-paced game.
‘Puzzle Bobble VR: Vacation Odyssey’
$19.99; rated “Everyone”; for Oculus Quest
Bub and Bob are back in a new Puzzle Bobble (a.k.a. Bust-A-Move) game.
To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the iconic bubble-popping puzzler, Survios and Taito have sent the dragons to a deserted island in “Puzzle Bobble VR: Vacation Odyssey,” the first virtual reality title for the franchise.
Rather than aiming your cannon up to shoot bubbles – matching the same color, in order to destroy as many as possible – the game is now played from a first-person 3-D view, with more than 100 different puzzles and extra head-scratching challenges.
The game features three modes: Story (progressively challenging levels), Infinite (match your way to a high score), and Online Duel (a fast-paced, one-on-one multiplayer match).
‘Star Wars Pinball VR’
$24.99; rated “Everyone 10+”; for Oculus Quest, Steam VR and PlayStation VR
Speaking of classic games, if you miss the days of smoky arcades and a pocket full of quarters, you can become reacquainted with the thrill of pinball – this time in virtual reality.
And if you’re a Star Wars fan on top of it, the force is strong with this one.
Zen Studios’ “Star Wars Pinball VR” features eight themed tables, including a pair of never-before-seen options: “The Mandalorian” and Star Wars Classic Collectibles. As you might guess, it’ll look like you’re playing pinball – down to the flippers, bumpers, plunger, ramps, and the silver ball.
Along with all the tables, including remastered favorites from past (non-VR) versions of “Star Wars Pinball,” this game includes a fully customizable Fan Cave to house your virtual pinball table (and items you earn); an optional Total Immersion mode (experience everything at table level); 360-degree minigames (with iconic Star Wars set pieces), and a cantina jukebox (with John Williams’ music).
‘Sniper Elite VR’
$29.99; rated “Mature” 17+; for Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift; Steam VR; HTC Vive; PSVR
World War II is raging. It’s Southern Italy, 1943, and fascist forces occupy your homeland. As a member of the brave Italian Resistance, you’re not going to let the Nazis take over.
You must put your marksmanship to the test as a sharpshooter in Rebellion’s “Sniper Elite VR,” an exhilarating first-person shooter. As you might expect, you’ll grab some WWII-era rifles, gaze down the scope, and attempt to peg off enemy forces with precision – and as stealthily and successfully as you can. Other period weapons include pistols, shotguns, submachine guns and explosives.
As with other sniper games, including the recently-released “Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts 2,” a dramatic (and gory) bullet-cam dramatically highlights your successful headshots.
The single-player campaign spans 18 missions, but are replayable, as you can try different tactics on the large maps across.