10 Killer Media Applications Enabled by 'Virtual Reality' Headsets

NEWS ANALYSIS: Virtual reality headsets can do much more than 'virtual reality,' a technical term that is badly defined in most news reports. Here are 10 rapidly developing applications.

VR Goggles 2

Virtual reality headsets are about to become part of your arsenal of gadgets. No, really!

A year ago, pretty much nobody had what are generally referred to as VR goggles or headsets. But a year from now, I predict that pretty much all serious tech fans, gamers, media consumers and social media users will own and use a pair.

We're right smack-dab in the middle of a full-fledged gadget revolution.

The emerging standard for the most mainstream (i.e., cheap) approach to such goggles is Google's open-source Cardboard platform. With Cardboard, anyone can make their own. The goggles are usually made out of—what else?—cardboard, and wrap around the user's smartphone. This category of device, which also includes Samsung's Gear VR goggles, uses the phone's screen, speakers, sensors and the ability to run apps instead of duplicating those components in the goggles.

Other leading contenders for widespread use of "VR goggles" are Facebook's Oculus Rift, Microsoft's HoloLens and Magic Leap, which should ship next year. In addition to these, we can expect hundreds of other VR headsets from literally hundreds of companies.

So the goggles are coming. The question is what are we going to do with them? Confusion abounds about the uses for VR goggles—specifically, the media they enable.

Most people—including journalists who write about this stuff, lazily and inaccurately—call everything "virtual reality" or "augmented reality." And in almost every such case, they're wrong.

By my count, there are 10 new, entirely distinct media that can be viewed through a pair of so-called "virtual reality goggles."

1. Stereography

Google announced a free Android app on Dec. 3 called Cardboard Camera. The app is for taking pictures that when viewed in Google Cardboard appear as 3D stereographic photos. It performs this feature by showing each eye a picture taken from a slightly different position and pointed in a slight different direction.

Google encourages users to take panoramas, and in fact, it works like your garden variety camera panning feature, where you start taking a picture then sweep to the right or left.

Cardboard Camera stereographs must be viewed in the app at present, using Google Cardboard goggles. The app also records and plays audio captured while the stereograph is captured.

Stereography is one of the first media most consumers will see through VR goggles.

2. Anaglyphy

Anaglyphs also show 3D, but using color. This is how those old-school cardboard 3D glasses work. While stereographs are a better 3D system for VR goggles, existing anaglyphs can be easily brought into an app for viewing with VR goggles.

3. 360-Degree Photography

Photos that go all the way around top to bottom are called 360-degree photos. Google calls them Photo Spheres, and they can be uploaded to Google Street View.

Most 360-degree photos are taken using a smartphone camera for taking pictures in all directions. A special app is required to stitch them together into a single 360-degree photo. But they can also be captured with special-purpose cameras, such as the Richoh Theta S.

When these are viewed in a Web browser, you can view the photo by in 360 degrees by clicking and dragging. But with VR goggles, simply turning the head to look lets you see all around in the photo.

As with so many VR goggle experiences, the ability to look around by naturally turning your head makes 360-degree photos psychologically convincing and satisfying.

4. Stereoscopic 360-Degree Photography

The true revolution in photography comes from the application of both stereoscopic and 360-degree photography.

This kind of photography requires special rigs for making high-quality experiences. But the effect is amazing.

5. Immersive Video

One of the biggest current uses for VR goggles today is to watch immersive video, which is video that lets you look around in all directions by moving your head. This kind of video can be streamed live, or with a delay, as it was with some of the recent U.S. presidential debates.

Immersive video is great for providing a stronger sense of "being there" than regular videos can.

Some professional immersive videos have been published. For example, The New York Times bundled Google Cardboard with the Sunday paper recently so subscribers could check out what was essentially a 360-degree video gallery on The Times' Website.