Virtual reality has traditionally been a difficult place to visit. With Gear VR’s November debut, the Playstation Morpheus, and Oculus Rift arriving this year, that’s about to change even as virtual reality itself expands.
In terms of ongoing VR projects, game developers’ interest has doubled, according to a recent industry survey. Consumer analyst estimate that 1.2 million units will be sold in 2016, rocketing to 200 million by 2020. This is the year VR starts to matter and the first year that virtual travel will be the stuff of casual conversation.
So, what corners of virtual reality are worth exploring? We’re here to help — consider these 25 virtual destinations to kick off your journey.
25) Apollo 11
Who doesn’t want to star in the greatest achievement of the space age? The crowdfunding campaign behind the Apollo 11 Experience emphasizes its educational potential — but the Armstrong view of the moon has sheer sensory appeal, too, not just piping in hot historical data to your optic nerves. If it makes dads cry tears of edutainment joy, that’s as good as an endorsement we need.
VR oozes with horror potential. When the lights go off on a computer monitor, you’re staring at a blank screen. When an Oculus display goes dark, you’re dunked in pitch black. One of the scariest things you can do in virtual reality at the moment is wander through Dreadhalls. The creepy dungeon crawler began as a Rift demo in 2013 and has been haunting users ever since. You can play it on Gear VR now, with the PC version timed to the consumer release of the Rift. Tread with caution, as a handful of armchair cardiologists — perhaps a little too breathlessly — envision that a truly terrifying VR game could literally scare someone to death.
23) The VOID
Set to open in late summer, the Vision Of Infinite Dimensions (or, you know, VOID) is the one of only two places on this list that’s an actual locale. It begs to be described as cutting-edge laser tag grafted to old-school arcade VR. You’ll have to travel to Utah, and then shell out a bit of cash — something like $34 — for 20 minutes of blasting guns at giant spiders and spells at dragons. Early reviews indicate the money’s worth it. As Rachel Metz writes at Technology Review, the experience is a mutant hybrid that combines virtual immersion with physical foam props:
“Occasionally, I run my free hand over a wall or a fallen stone, just to get a reality check; yep, still there. A fire burns in the middle of one passageway, and I actually feel its warmth on my face. At one point, standing in a cave on a rickety-looking platform overlooking an underground pool, I press my hand onto a small podium in front of me, and the platform rumbles and rises off the ground.”
22) Eve: Valkyrie
Space-fighting simulators are ancient by video game standards — and have flown under the radar in recent years — but there’s a shiny new crop coming to virtual reality. Of these, the big hitters are Eve: Valkyrie, Star Citizen, Elite Dangerous, and No Man’s Sky. Each comes with a distinct flavor — Eve is all in on dogfights, No Man’s Sky wants you to explore — but each lets you live out your Spaceman Spiff/Luke Skywalker/Captain Starbuck fantasies to one degree or another. The real question is when you’ll get to play some of these games. Eve: Valkyrie comes bundled with pre-ordered Rifts; Star Citizen will come whenever it damn well pleases.
The Oculus Story Studio loves Pixar movies along with everyone else in the universe; it’s also in the position of expressing that love by filching a bunch of Pixar talent. The ways of Pixar are strong in Henry, a story about a lonely hedgehog; if Henry departs from the masterful WALL-E et al. it’s that the little beastie knows when you’re looking at him and reacts accordingly.
20) Dungeons and Dragons
You can play D&D in meatspace, but why not relocate to a tavern where dice hang from the ceiling? In AltspaceVR’s take on monster-slaying and role-playing, it’s social VR meets digital orcs — a match worthy of Gary Gygax’s legacy.
19) Oculus Video
A video streaming service might not sound amazing, particularly as YouTube enters its tween years. But tiny VR screens can give you the impression of otherworldly theaters. The digital sci-fi short Uncanny Valley looks great Vimeo, but watching Uncanny Valley on a simulated lunar projector is fantastic.
Bojack Horseman, a home theater that would put MTV’s Cribs to shame, and virtual snow falling outside a virtual chateau ought to warm the cockles of any TV junkie’s black heart.
17) Smash Hit
Perhaps dogfighting above alien planets isn’t your jam. Try Smash Hit, which has you firing ball bearings from your face at glass planes. It’s at once strange and soothing, though the atmosphere veers into alarming if shards of glass crumble too close to the eyes.
16) Desert Bus 2.0
The first Desert Bus, which no less a cultural barometer than the New Yorker called “the very worst video game ever created,” was a brutal form of entertainment conjured up by illusionists Penn and Teller. A player had to make the drive from Tucson, Arizona, to Las Vegas, Nevada, through the desert, in a bus, at 45 mph. This takes 8 hours on Earth. And so P&T — with a slavish devotion to realism — made the trip take 8 un-plausible hours in the game. Desert Bus 2.0 threatens to be exactly like its precursor, only playable in VR.
15) The Night Cafe
Are you looking for an immersive tribute to Dutch master Vincent van Gogh but don’t know which one to pick? Try the Night Cafe. Neither game nor movie, it’s a VR “experience” in the catch-all meaning of the world. Nothing much happens, except that you’re wandering through a place that couldn’t possibly exist without VR.
14) Robinson: The Journey
Robinson: The Journey, an upcoming game for PlayStation VR, has all the ingredients of what made Jurassic Park go off like a blockbuster nuke: being trapped on an island, and dinosaurs. Little dinosaurs! Big dinosaurs! So many dinosaurs! (There’s also a metal orb that gives you instructions, just like the metal orb in Destiny, for what it’s worth.) You can get a glimpse of dino VR in the Jurassic World: Apatosaurus demo for Gear VR — itself an impressive few minutes — so get excited for when terrible lizards to thunder across dual screens in earnest.
13) 100 Ft. Robot Golf
In 100 Ft. Robot Golf, you take control of a giant, golf-playing robot. The trailer is stupid, but it’s aware it’s stupid, giving us hope that developer No Goblin can pull off a feat of VR gaming comedy.
12) Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes
In Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, a player wearing a headset is stuck in a room with a bomb. Everyone else has to rely on a manual and the player’s descriptions of the virtual explosive to guide the poor soul through how to defuse it. It’s an experiment in VR as party game, and it’s a blast.
11) The Displaced
What The New York Times’ entry into virtual reality journalism, “The Displaced,” represents is better than the delivery. That’s not to say the story isn’t important — it is — or that the video isn’t compelling. But what “The Displaced” does best is foreshadow VR’s documentary potential. (Choosing to go with Google Carboard makes sense if you want to reach a large audience; though as Fortune noted, going the economical route gave some people headaches.) VR doesn’t just have to transport you to a completely fictional world — it can take you to corners of our own. Whether the act of transporting a viewer undercuts journalistic integrity is just as much a debate as if Google Cardboard’s 360-degree video counts as VR proper.
10) VR Roller Coaster
The other physical location on this list, this time in the UK, the Galactica roller coaster at Alton Towers will combine virtual reality headsets with real g-forces when it opens in April. There’s no word yet on how they’re going to clean the vomit off of the lenses between rides.
9) Hover Junkers
Transcribe the techno-western world of Borderlands into virtual reality, make the game about potshots from floating platforms, and you’re left with something very close to Hover Junkers. Gunplay uses the Oculus Touch, and the game is all about room-scale motion control. Welcome to the age of games warning you about oversized digital assets — in this case, too-large ships — that might mean you end up walking into the good china.
8) Lucky’s Tale
Who knows how long it will take for Super Mario 64 to end up in VR, but in the meantime there’s Lucky’s Tale. You control a hopping fox, and can lean in like a curious deity to get a closer look at the action.
7) Edge of Nowhere
When an expedition to the Antarctic takes a Lovecraftian turn, a headset lets you watch from just behind the protagonist’s shoulder. Created by Insomniac Games, makers of Ratchet and Clank and The Resistance, Edge of Nowhere wants to make the case that third-person virtual reality shouldn’t get left behind.
6) Bullet Train
Combining ultra-violence of the Unreal Engine 4, Bullet Train uses Matrix-y bullet time to mow down waves of robotic foes. It’s all about haptics, relying on the Oculus Touch for mayhem that buzzes in your palms.
5) The Martian VR experience
It’s tempting, but wrong, to dismiss the upcoming Martian VR Experience as a promotional tie-in for the Matt Damon space epic The Martian. The 20-minute-long VR cinema isn’t quite movie or game, but if it does as well as early reviews suggest, expect other 20th Century Fox properties to get the VR treatment. A jaunt through the Nostromo, anyone?
4) Rez Infinite
Rez, the most psychonautic of Playstation games, is coming to VR. It promises to turn the Lawnmower Man aesthetic into something enjoyable, propped up by sick beats.
3) Down the Street
Using Google Maps — the street view part — you can get a Cardboard-eye view of anywhere a Google employee has taken one of those dweeby cameras.
2) The San Fernando Valley
It is a rule that wherever visual technology goes, porn swims closely in its wake. If you want to experience smut in its strange attempts at virtual titillation — switching genders takes nothing more than camera angles — you certainly can.
1) Surreal VR
Before we get to sci-fi author Neal Stephenson’s full-blown metaverse, we’ll see attempts and approximations. Surreal VR isn’t perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction. Like an immersive Second Life, Surreal VR is all about avatars doing absurd things. A place where you can “ride with Genghis Khan or dance to Chaka Khan,” Surreal VR plans to have those different strokes covered.