Virtual reality - or VR - is a technology you might have heard of and it is growing in popularity.
To experience virtual reality, you wear a headset which recreates a virtual environment in which you can look around in 360 degrees, hear sounds and move your hands and feet to interact with the world around you.
Virtual reality has lots of uses. BT Sport broadcast the UEFA Champions League final in VR, Openreach is using it so trainee engineers can experience things like climbing a telephone pole, and VR is increasingly used for gaming, so you can explore the bottom of the ocean, ride a rollercoaster and more.
Read on to find out more about how VR works and how suitable it is for children. For more information, Internet Matters, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to keeping children safe online, has published a guide written by games expert Andy Robertson packed with helpful advice.
Virtual reality: The headsets
If you are curious about VR and want to try it, but don’t want to spend much money, Google Cardboard is a good place to start. Headsets cost under £10 from Amazon, you slot your smartphone in the front (it works with Android and Apple phones) and there are loads of free VR apps in the Google Play Store, including a Halloween ride, beach and even Star Wars.
For a better VR experience, the Samsung Gear Gen 2 is a proper headset, so slightly more expensive, and works with some Samsung phones. The Samsung Gear Gen lets you download apps and games from the Oculus Store.
Google’s Daydream View is similar, but runs on Google's operating system so apps and games are downloaded from the Google Play Store. It also works with phones from a range of manufacturers, just make sure the phone is Daydream approved.
Stand-alone virtual reality requires no extra equipment, everything you need to experience VR is provided inside the headset itself.
The most well-known example of this is the Oculus Go headset which lets you access 1000s of apps and games directly within the headset. It comes with its own controller and has a high-resolution screen and virtual surround sound.
Being able to experience VR without any extra equipment comes at a price though and the Oculus Go costs £199 or £249 depending on the amount of storage you want. It also still requires a smartphone in order to setup.
The Lenovo Mirage Solo uses the same software as the Google Daydream View we mentioned earlier which means apps and games are downloaded from the Google Play Store. Unlike the Daydream View you don’t need a phone, which means that it’s considerably more expensive at £349.
Console and PC-based VR
This type of virtual reality requires a games console or a powerful gaming PC to run. These headsets provide the most immersive and impressive virtual reality experience but also cost the most.
It’s also important to remember that you not only have to factor in the cost of the headset, but then the cost of the games console or PC if you don’t already own one that works with VR.
PlayStation VR is currently the only console-based virtual reality headset and requires a PlayStation 4 in order to work. A headset starter kit costs £199 but you’ll also need to buy a PlayStation 4 as well if you don’t already own one.
It is primarily designed for games, so unlike the others mentioned above it’s not really designed for watching movies or running interactive apps. That being said there are some fantastic games available which are perfect for kids and families.
Astro Bot VR is a stunning platforming game that lets you control a tiny robot as it explores various worlds. Think Mario in virtual reality and you’re not far off. In addition, Tetris Effect takes one of the most iconic video games and transforms it into an incredible virtual reality experience featuring stunning visuals and a pounding soundtrack.
The Oculus Rift is perhaps the most famous virtual reality headset and is designed for powerful gaming PCs.
It’s uses two special cameras to track the headset and controllers in 3D allowing you to turn your entire living room into a space you can walk around and explore.
The Rift starter kit costs £399 and comes with the headset, controllers and the cameras. Remember you’ll also need a computer capable of supporting virtual reality and they can start at £800.
The HTC Vive is the other main virtual reality headset for gaming PCs and offers an even more immersive experience thanks to an extremely high-resolution display that makes images seem crystal clear.
Just like the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive uses a pair of cameras to track the movements of the player around a room, giving you a much wider area within which you can explore.
Due to its advanced technology, Vive starts at £499 while the Pro version which has an even higher resolution display costs £1,299.
This type of virtual reality requires a console to work, which means it’s more expensive, but the graphics and sound are better, creating a more immersive experience.
Is virtual reality safe for children?
Virtual reality is a new technology, so there haven’t been many studies into its long-term effects on children.
It’s an immersive technology that engages your body, eyes and ears and because children are still growing and developing, you’re advised to limit their time using VR. According to the Oculus manual, ‘Prolonged use should be avoided, as this could negatively impact hand-eye coordination, balance, and multi-tasking ability.’
VR - along with playing video games and watching TV - brings a small risk (1 in 4000) of seizures, triggered by lights. Some people have reported feeling motion sickness after using virtual reality.
Different manufacturers have different age recommendations, but general advice is that children should be monitored and take regular breaks:
- Google Cardboard: Google doesn’t specify an age, its website says: ‘Cardboard is not for use by children without adult supervision.’
- Samsung Gear VR: The Gear VR should not be used by children under the age of 13.
- Google Daydream View: Daydream View should not be used by children under the age of 13.
- Sony PlayStation VR: The VR headset is not for use by children under the age of 12.
- HTC Vive: HTC doesn’t specify an age, but advises young children not to use the product.
- Oculus Rift: The product should not be used by children under the age of 14.
Virtual reality is a brilliant technology, you genuinely feel like you are in another world, and it can be a great experience for children and help them learn, but you need to exercise caution using it.
Writing on Internet Matters, games expert Andy Roberson advises parents to take the same approach to VR games as normal video games: “Trying the games out before younger players experience them is advisable.
“As with any video-game, you should take breaks of 5-10 minutes after every 45 minutes of playing. Starting with shorter periods of play is also advisable to let players acclimatise to this very different way of playing games.”