New wave of virtual reality gear comes at more affordable prices

Brendan Reilly, CEO of Eon Sports, wears a virtual reality headset while using the company's Sidekiq software, which is used for training football players.
Brendan Reilly, CEO of Eon Sports, wears a virtual reality headset while using the company's Sidekiq software, which is used for training football players.

It’s the next big thing, say the folks who make their living predicting the next big thing. Investors are on board, too, ponying up more than $400 million for startups this year, and would-be players seeking even more money are everywhere on Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

And with big names including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Sony behind a next generation of high-dollar, high-tech gear about to hit the market, 2016 could be its year.

The coolest thing about it, though, might be that anyone with a smartphone and $20 (or less) can have a lot of fun getting a taste of what it’s like.

“It” is virtual reality, whose futuristic looking headsets immerse users in the feeling of being somewhere else. That can be on this Earth, for everything from corporate or athletic training to sharing a death-defying cliff climb, or in another reality for advanced game playing and enhanced fantasy storytelling.

Here’s a quick look at virtual reality as big business, little business and — what we’re really interested in — monkey business.

Big business

Samsung made it to market this year with its $100 Gear VR headset. Users have to have one of Samsung’s top phones — Galaxy S6/S6 Edge, S6 Edge+ or Galaxy Note 5 — but reviews have been good, and supplies of it sold out at many locations for the holiday season.

The heaviest hitters, though, will be released in the next couple of months, including Oculus Rift (Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion), PlayStation VR, FOVE VR and HTC Vive. Look for lots of megapixels to be flashed and ink spilled about these during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next month.

Their controls will enable all sorts of gaming possibilities, but the sets also are expected to run from $300 to $500 and to require a high-end PC or gaming system such as PlayStation.

Outside the consumer realm, virtual reality is already used for corporate and military training, along with practice and training for some sports, and architects can turn their scale models of future projects into virtual buildings you can walk through. There’s also the related technology called augmented reality, which projects holographic images.

Little business

Speaking of athletic training, a local player, EON Sports of Kansas City, isn’t so little any more, but it shows the field’s commercial possibilities. The seven-person company makes $99 virtual reality systems, along with software running $39 to $99.

It started with a football training system called SIDEKIQ, so that a player wearing it could, say, practice throwing a variety of passes without needing a live receiver — or even a football.

EON Sports VR, makers of the widely popular SIDEKIQ simulator football software, announced a new partnership with Jason Giambi, a former baseball MVP, and Dan O’Dowd, a former Colorado Rockies general manager and a current MLB Network analyst, to offer virtual reality baseball training, featuring EON Sports’ interactive hitting simulator, Project OPS.

Brendan Reilly, CEO of Eon Sports, demonstrates a virtual reality headset while using the company’s Sidekiq software, which is used for training football players. (Video by Monty Davis | The Kansas City Star)

In October, says chief executive officer Brendan Reilly, EON launched its baseball training program, Project OPS, and plans to release a soccer program in 2016.

The baseball program “is great if you don’t have a batting cage and a buddy who can throw you hundreds of 85-mile-an-hour curveballs,” Reilly said.

For young players, the hope is that the system can inexpensively augment or replace thousands of dollars worth of personal coaching. And for those showing real promise, a few months with the system might replace a few years in the minor leagues for building pitch recognition and strike-zone judgment.

Companies hoping to join EON Sports as going concerns are everywhere, too, and attracting capital. According to venture capital tracker CB Insights, virtual and augmented reality firms pulled in $408 million in the first nine months of this year, up from $145 million the first three quarters of 2014.

Monkey business

Here’s where the rest of us who haves lives and budgets can get it on the fun. You do need a smartphone and a cheap viewer, but that’s it. Google gave this sector a big boost with its Cardboard devices, which are little more than a cardboard shell, viewing lenses and an outside button so you can tap your smartphone screen. Dozens of imitators have followed.

Google’s shopping site offers several $20-$30 viewers, and Googling “get cardboard” will give you that site plus several others, including links to a few sets available for less than $5.

One of the viewers is from Viewmaster, and kids like me who have been around for four (or five or six) decades will be reminded of watching Viewmaster’s photo wheels and getting their first sense of seeing images in 3-D.

But virtual reality goes beyond that, as you’ll see once you download a few apps, slip your smartphone into your viewer, and give it a try. Here are a few of my favorites, after just a couple of weeks trying out a Cardboard viewer on my Android phone. Most apps are available at the Apple Store for iOS fans and at Google Play for Android users.

▪ NYT VR. The New York Times has some fun offerings, including “Take Flight,” in which you get to float and soar among the stars with such stars as Benicio Del Toro, Charlize Theron, Rooney Mara and Kristen Wiig. But its finest work is its documentaries, including “The Displaced,” which puts you in the middle of the stories of three refugee children from Ukraine, South Sudan and Syria.

▪ Vrse. Besides The Times’ content, this app gets you to several other offerings, including games, TV shows and music videos.

▪ The North Face: Climb. This app from Jaunt lets you join two veterans as the climb and base jump in Utah and Yosemite.

▪ VR Youtube 3D Videos. Fun viewing including movie trailers and games.

▪ War of Words VR. Another grabber, based on a BBC series of the same name, puts you on a 1916 battlefield for a reading of the poem “The Kiss.”

▪ Tilt Brush Gallery. Virtual drawing apps will come with the high-dollar systems coming out this year. Gallery gives Cardboard viewers a look at what that will be like, following artists as they create using an app called Tilt Brush.

▪ Jack White: THIRD-D. See what guitarist Jack White sees during a live performance.

Who knows? For a few bucks you might get hooked on a new medium. Or at least know what your favorite techie is talking about next year.