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Think virtual reality is just for games? These awesome VR apps will change your mind

Nick Hastings
best vr apps htc vive

Jessica Lee Star/Digital Trends

If there’s anything we’ve learned from Hollywood movies, it’s that there’s only a matter of time before the machines inevitably become sentient, take control of the earth, and ruthlessly hunt down any and all remaining humans in impressively efficient fashion. For now, though, we’ve still got the upper hand(s), as we can safely place virtual reality headsets upon our unprotected craniums without fear of decapitation, accidental laser eye surgery, or any other freaky sci-fi mishap.

Virtual reality is often associated with video games, and for good reason. Most VR development is in service of immersive, unique gaming experiences that simply aren’t possible via any other medium. Some titles — particularly horror games — offer a certain je ne sais quoi that just can’t be equaled on a boring old television screen. That said, gaming isn’t the only way to take advantage of a VR headset. The most exciting thing about VR is that we’re still just scratching the surface and discovering new ways to educate and entertain ourselves. With that in mind, here are ten of our favorite VR apps.

Allumette (free)

Platforms: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, PSVR

Penrose Studios’ free-to-play, stop-motion VR film experience, chronicling the story of a young girl in a cloud-borne village, is absolutely breathtaking. In Allumette, you act as the camera, exploring the gorgeously drawn world however you please — even ignoring the main storyline, if you so desire. Make no mistake: This is a narrative, not a game. Though none of the characters in Allumette actually speak, per se, the forms of communication they do use (emotive, Sims-like noises, mostly) do an effective job of conveying emotion and intent.

The story itself — based loosely upon a poem by Hans Christian Andersen — is both charming and heartrending, though we won’t spoil too much here. Few VR experiences create the same sense of weight and presence for the viewer, and in Allumette, you’ll truly feel like you’ve been transported into a storybook world. The 20 minute runtime is an eternity in comparison to most narrative-based VR experiences — few even reach the ten minute mark — but Penrose CEO and founder Eugene Chung considers virtual and augmented reality to be the future of storytelling, and pushing boundaries is the only way to break paradigms. Allumette lies somewhere in the murky realm between filmic narrative and video games, but somehow it rises above genre as a simply divine experience.

If you enjoyed Allumette and you have access to an Oculus Rift, Henry is also worth checking out.

Get it now from:

Steam Oculus

Colosse (free)

Platforms: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, OSVR

Top notch sound design and wonderful, Samurai Jack-esque animation are the driving forces behind Colosse, a short story VR experience that responds to the rooted player’s gaze, moving the narrative forward seamlessly. Described by developer Fire Panda as a “real-time virtual reality storytelling experience,” Colosse revels in its sense of scale, with clever details throughout — for instance, the “hunter” character is rendered at just 12 frames per second, while the rest of the film is in 60 — that contribute to its unique atmosphere.

Audio and visual cues direct the player’s gaze, and certain objects “wait” to activate until you look at them, which provides a natural sense of pace. Certain events will occur depending upon the direction you’re facing, so you’ll never be stuck searching for the next piece of the puzzle. Originally designed as a demo for the Oculus Mobile VRJam, Colosse isn’t quite as fleshed out as Allumette, but it’s certainly a sight to behold, and a fun display of the ways VR can change storytelling. Oh, and it’s free.

Get it now from:

Steam Oculus

Google Earth VR (free)

Platforms: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard

When VR began to blossom as an entertainment medium, one of our first thoughts was: “Google Earth is going to be super freaking cool.” Turns out, we were right. Flying around the planet like some kind of hypersonic eagle is both enjoyable and educational, at least if you happen to like geography. Even if you don’t like geography, you can still use the quick-nav menu to visit landmark sites like the Sphinx or the Golden Gate Bridge, and you can even pay a digital visit to the capital of Djibouti.

Unsurprisingly, lots of landscapes and areas appear to be little more than colorful smudges (especially if you’re using Google Cardboard), but it’s a free app, so what are you gonna do? Zooming across vast distances in a matter of seconds and descending upon mammoth structures like the Hoover Dam is exhilarating, even if you can’t make out the individual cars driving across it. Chances are, you’ve used Google Earth before, so you know the drill. It only gets more fun in virtual reality; just don’t expect too much detail.

Get it now from:

Steam Oculus Google Play Store

Kingspray Graffiti VR ($15)

Platforms: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift

Ever fancied yourself a street artist? No, not like the guy who paints himself gold and stands still for several hours. A true street artist — think Banksy or Shepard Fairey, scaling freeway overpasses and windy rooftops to unleash your inner Rembrandt for urban passersby to appreciate (or scoff at, as the case may be). In Kingspray, you can (legally) live out those dreams, using (virtual) spray paint to make your mark on one of five (digital) walls, from laboratories to rooftops.

Whether you prefer to tag alleyway walls or train cars, Kingspray features realistic drip and spray effects, complete with different can caps and pressures to fully customize your masterpiece. You can load up images and project them onto paint surfaces to act as stencils, save 360 degree screen captures, and even paint online with up to three friends. What more could you want? Oh, yeah, in true VR fashion, you can pick up loose objects like bricks and bottles to throw at each other. Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta.

Get it now from:

Steam Oculus

Littlstar (free)

Platforms: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, PSVR, Samsung Gear VR

Using your VR headset to watch content from Netflix, Hulu, and Youtube is fun. It’s like having your own personal IMAX movie theater to visit any time you want, without dropping obscene amounts of coin on popcorn and cookie dough bites. Littlstar VR Cinema, though, changes the game by offering a full library of 360 degree videos designed to make you feel like you’re the cameraman. Whether you’d prefer to educate yourself about the state of Nepal post-earthquake or simply jam out to some music videos, Littlstar provides a point of view that you just can’t get anywhere else.

There’s Broadway theater content, sports content, and content for kids, making this one of the best VR experiences out there. It’s also absolutely free. The user interface is smoother on some platforms than it is on others — looking at you, Rift — but that’s a minor complaint. If you’re the creative type, you can even film and upload your own 360-degree content for others to view and enjoy.

Get it now from:

Steam Oculus

Ocean Rift ($10)

Platforms: Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR (demo)

The open ocean is a terrifying yet wondrous place, and its full depths are on display in Ocean Rift. The experience is akin to an African safari, except you’re free to roam wherever you please — and you’re underwater, of course. Explore any of the 12 huge open habitats at your leisure, observing marine wildlife that includes dolphins, manatees, sharks, and more. Head toward the surface to cavort with sea turtles, or dive into deeper waters to encounter more dangerous — and potentially deadly — animals.

If you want to simply sit back and watch the fish pass you by, Ocean Rift can be a calming, therapeutic experience. If you’d prefer to explore the game to its fullest, it can almost become a survival horror game with a few surprises up its watery sleeve. Little touches — like the outline of a diving mask around the screen’s edges — help to make this a truly memorable experience. If you don’t want to pay for the full experience, check out the Gear VR demo here.

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The FOO Show (free)

Platforms: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, OSVR

Of all the fantastical possibilities that the commercialization of virtual reality affords, talk shows are extremely low on the list. After all, who really wants to step into the shoes of an audience member on Oprah, without even receiving a free gift?

As it turns out, though, it can be cool. The FOO show — hosted by Tested.com co-founder Will Smith, a.k.a. FOO — is technically a talk show, but it’s so much more than that. The show, funded via Kickstarter and powered by motion-capture, features a digitized Smith speaking with digitized guests about games and tech culture.

You might be wondering: “Why is this in VR?” That’s a good question! The coolest thing about The FOO Show is its creative use of VR to transport viewers directly into the game environments that are being discussed onscreen. For example, the first episode (technically, Episode 0) transports viewers — as well as cyber-Smith, and his cyber-guests — into the watchtower from Firewatch, where you can walk around, examine your surroundings, and interact with objects, all while enjoying insightful commentary. The following episode depicts Smith interviewing Blendo Games’ Brendon Chung about hacker-puzzle game Quadrilateral Cowboy, with part of the interview taking place in one of the game’s environments. Frankly, we’re not sure what kind of schedule the show will adhere to — if any — but it’s a creative concept that gamers should love.

Get it now from:

Steam Oculus

Tilt Brush ($20)

If you’re not the artsy type, Tilt Brush might surprise you. Using the motion sensors for the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift Touch controllers, the app allows you to “paint” in a three-dimensional space to create absolutely stunning works of art, in any color imaginable. The motion controls are surprisingly accurate, and the digital medium means you can simply go back to delete any mistakes you might have made. Even if you’re not naturally creative, Tilt Brush will bring out a new side of you.

In addition to painting (which, sadly, is limited to a single brush shape), you can add cool effects like sparkling stars or smoke trails to accentuate elements of your painting. The Oculus Rift version boasts a cool “preview” feature, but the app is equally enjoyable on either platform. Currently, Google (the creator) has chosen not to bring Tilt Brush to PSVR, citing a lack of precision in the tracking software. If you own a Vive or Rift, though, you absolutely have to get Tilt Brush. For now, it’s one of the best VR experiences out there, introducing an entirely new artistic medium for creatives and non-creatives alike to enjoy.

Get it now from:

Steam Oculus

Virtual Desktop ($14-15)

Platforms: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, OSVR

Have you ever fantasized about navigating your computer in virtual reality, like that episode of The Fairly Odd Parents where Timmy actually goes inside the internet? Neither have we. If that sounds interesting, though, boy, do we have some good news for you! Virtual Desktop lets you use your computer in VR, whether you’re browsing the web, watching Netflix, or playing games. Hell, you can even manage spreadsheets in VR, though we think that might be more of a hindrance than anything.

The app works well with multiple-monitor setups, and using your headset to swivel back and forth between screens is pretty cool. There are a lot of limitations — you can’t click tabs in Chrome, for instance, and the app is unfortunately incompatible with 360-degree video content.

Get it now from:

Steam Oculus

Within (free)

Platforms: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, OSVR, PSVR, Google Cardboard

Within provides a platform to view amazing content from VR creators across the world, from crazy on-rails fantasy rides to 360-degree music videos. New experiences are added regularly — most recently, a 13-minute, 360-degree video based on the hit TV show Mr. Robot — to entertain and educate you in the most immersive manner possible. View content from news outlets like NBC, Apple, the New York Times, and Vice Media, as well as musical groups and movie studios.

The Possible, a video series from the Within team, explores technology through the lens of your VR headset, with each episode touching on different topics, like hovercrafts and robotic dogs. The show is directed by David Gelb (Chef’s Table), and new episodes are released regularly. If you don’t download Within, you’re doing yourself a disservice — the app is free, and even if some of the content doesn’t pique your interest, the available library is only going to get bigger over time. Video quality varies — it seems the animated content is smoother than the live-action content — but that’s no reason to deny yourself the Within experience.

Get it now from:

Steam Oculus Google Play Store