An Introduction to VR
This article is meant to be a survey of the best VR apps and games for the Android operating system, but it is important to understand a little about what VR is, where it has come from, and where it is heading first.
Virtual reality (VR) is an over-arching branding term which describes any technology based on the idea that the user is presented with an electronically generated, computerized simulation of the world, or rather, of some world. Outside of military applications, VR is generally used to ‘immerse’ the individual in some kind of fantasy scenario with varying degrees of realism. Though, as in the 1999 film The Matrix, it might soon be possible to deliver a very realistic VR model of what looks like the real world, but which is in fact an electronic simulacrum. Most of the best VR apps for Android that we’ll cover in this guide fall into the former, rather than the later category, as the technology isn’t quite Matrix-level yet.
The key thing about VR is the concept of ‘immersion.’ When we think of VR these days, we usually think about a head-mounted visor system. These headsets cuts out all external input and present the user with a relatively small screen, typically a smart phone, suspended close to the eyes, usually with adjustable focal range for comfort. Google’s Cardboard headsets and Cardboard VR apps for Android are an example of this kind of technology. External audio input is cut off by ear-buds or earphones, which provide soundtrack cues to match the events unfolding on the VR screen. With no other external stimuli, what you see and hear becomes, for you, a virtual reality, even without any haptic component.
The word haptic is used to describe physical cues of motion and pressure, and these are generally missing from most of the modern VR apps. It has long been possible to sample haptic gaming chairs for driving and shoot-em-up screen-based games in arcades, where fairly basic physical motion and vibration feedback is enabled. It is now possible to buy similar haptic simulators for home-based gaming, but surprisingly, these twin technologies (VR and haptic systems) have not yet been tied together. However, feedback from CES2019 indicates that haptic enabled VR apps and related equipment are likely to hit the market in 2020/21.
It may come as a surprise to some of the smart phone generation and Millennials, but the basics of VR go all the way back to the 1830s! Wheatstone’s introduction of the stereoscope and, crucially, the much later version of this idea, the View-Master from William Gruber were the pioneers. The View-Master was released a century after Wheatstone, in 1939, just before the start of the Second World War. It was one of the early introductions of the idea of VR to the military, as the View-Master became a very important tool in plane identification training and even in planning bombing missions during the latter part of that conflict. Since then, as with many modern technologies, VR development has largely been pushed by the DoD and DARPA, though in this case with a very major assist from both the airlines and the aircraft manufacturers, and in fact from NASA itself.
The very first flight simulator appeared in 1929 with the Link Trainer (patented by Edward Link) of which more than 10,000 units were used to train pilots during WWII. Since then, the major aircraft manufacturers and other players in the defense industry have driven the development of electronic VR in training simulators. Now, all pilots, all astronauts, and many, many military personnel are trained, in large part, using VR simulators. And of course, much of this technology is now deployed in the field. All the drones and remote guided planes and missiles we hear about on the news, and the upcoming crewless tanks which we don’t hear so much about, are all commanded from the relative comfort of a haptic-enabled VR control booth situated somewhere in Kentucky or Maryland.
VR has come a long way in the last 200 years, but it still has a long way to go. The military are already looking into DCS, direct cortical stimulation systems, where, in large part, our sensory organs can be bypassed, and the brain directly stimulated to ‘perceive’ the simulacra which are fed to it as ‘reality.’
As we mentioned already, this technology could perhaps take us closer to The Matrix than we might feel comfortable with. But at least now, with a little bit of background knowledge on VR, we can appreciate some of the latest and greatest VR technology and VR games and apps for Android. We’ll also address some headsets and technologies that are part of the Android VR experience (though not technically apps or games).
Not an Android fan? We’ve got you covered with our companion article, 10 Best VR Apps and Games for iPhone.
An Introduction to Google Cardboard
#1 – Best VR Technology for Android – Cardboard
The Android platform is of course owned and developed by Google, so it is not too surprising to learn that many of the top apps and interfaces also come from Google, of which Cardboard is the first and easiest to grasp. Google Cardboard is Android’s basic VR platform, and is based on the idea of growing the size of the VR market by allowing very low-cost access to VR. This is achieved through a basically free Android tool (Cardboard) and a very low-cost headset, typically made from folded cardboard, which you strap your phone into. To use Cardboard, users place their smartphone into the back of the viewer, run a Cardboard-compatible application on the phone, and simply view the content through the lenses which are supplied with each Cardboard compatible headset.
#2 – Best VR Technology for Android – Best Cardboard Headset
I AM CARDBOARD (MSRP $14.99)
The best Cardboard VR headset which is actually made from cardboard may well be Google’s own $15 Google Cardboard VR headset. But, it’s very basic. The specs are open-source, so there are many companies that sell Cardboard-compatible headsets, both made from cardboard and other materials. If you’re looking for some additional color options, for example, you might like the I AM CARDBOARD headsets we’ve linked above.
#3 – Best VR Technology for Android – Coolest Cardboard Headset
The Leather Viewer (MSRP $32.99)
By far the coolest Cardboard-compatible headset is the Leather Viewer 3.0 from Powis. This fabulously tactile leather-covered headset resembles some kind of 1930’s field-glasses for the Ascot or Kentucky horse races, but is in fact a uniquely luxurious virtual reality Cardboard-compatible headset. Coming in at roughly double the cost of a basic Cardboard headset, it’s near the higher end of Cardboard type VR goggles. But it is hardly going to break the bank, and the cachet of having these glorious glasses on your head will more than outweigh mere financial considerations. Despite the leather finish, high-quality lenses and a full rubber trim for comfort and cleanliness, these lightweight goggles weigh less than 8 ounces, and feel light and secure on the head. A must-have for the style-conscious VR user looking to enjoy the best VR apps and games for Android.
Best Free VR Apps for Android
#4 – Best Free VR Apps for Android – Best Cardboard VR Intro App
Titans of Space VR App (Free)
The Titans of Space VR app provides a tour of the solar system at about a millionth of its actual size, complete with floating models of the planets and moons, even including some of the dwarf planets such as Pluto and Ceres. The app is accompanied by a vivid and stimulating soundtrack with a fifty-minute voice-over (available in multiple languages) giving details of the celestial objects and their orbits. The great thing with the Titans of Space VR app is that it is under constant development, and is regularly updated with new features and new information. It’s a great and educational way to introduce yourself to how VR works for you.
#5 – Best Free VR Apps for Android – Best Culture App
Google Arts & Culture (Free)
The Google Arts & Culture project is a massive collaboration between Google and many of the world’s leading art galleries and collections, to allow access to these collections online. However, as part of this project, Google realized that although viewing a picture on a flat screen was one thing, being able to look at these artworks in VR would allow closer inspection of the art in its home environment. They theorized that this could provide a much stronger educational tool, and a much more attractive environment for the display of tens of thousands of unbelievably beautiful works of art. The Google Arts & Culture App provides virtual tours of museums, galleries, famous buildings and historical locations, exploring masterpieces or the work of little-known artists wherever they may be in the world, without the discomfort and expense of traveling there to see them. That alone warrants inclusion on our list of the best VR apps for Android. Did we mention it’s completely free?
#6 – Best Free VR Apps for Android – Best News App
NYT VR (Free)
In this world of 24-hour news, catching regular updates on your phone will keep you up to date, but it won’t involve you – it’s just impersonal, externalized information. For those of us who like to feel closer to the news, to feel connected to what’s happening in the world, to feel involved, perhaps NYT VR is the solution. New York Times VR offers that organ’s award-winning journalism together with fabulous full action VR video footage from around the world. From Afghanistan to Zanesville and from Brexit to Youth Culture, the NYT VR app brings virtual reality to real news and to documentary features which are updated every month. This app has recently been enhanced to feature Google’s Daydream technology, for additional functionality and impact.
#7 – Best Free VR Apps for Android – Best VR Tourism App
Google Earth VR (Free)
If you have ever felt that you would like to be able to fly around the world, without troubling Boeing or Airbus, then Google Earth VR is probably as close as you’re ever going to get. When Cardboard was released and VR began to explode, one of the first ideas was to see if Google Earth could be transferred successfully into a VR experience. Now of course both products come from Google, and such is the ingenuity of the guys in Mountain View that very quickly Google Earth VR became a reality. But there is a problem!
Flying around the world, even at the apparent supersonic speeds possible with Google Earth VR, reveals just how boring much of our planet is. If you find yourself flying over the wheat fields of Kansas, or the ice deserts of Antarctica, or the seemingly endless Russian steppe or, very likely, the Pacific Ocean, you will realize two things. One, the world is REALLY, REALLY big, and two, Google doesn’t spend a lot of graphical resource mapping the boring bits. So pick your spots and use the Quick-Nav tool to swoop around the more interesting sights. Snake down the Grand Canyon, fly through London Bridge, hover over the Nazca Lines of the Atacama, or work out the quickest way to get home from the party you’re at. Whatever you do, wherever you go, this is probably as close to free-flying as most of us will ever get.
#8 – Best Free VR Apps for Android – Best Games Guide
VR Apps and Games Guide (Free)
To help you get the most out of your Cardboard or other VR glasses, Apps Cowboys have pulled together a free VR Apps and Games Guide which allows you to explore some of the latest Android VR apps, tools, games, and movies. Thousands of Cardboard users get to enjoy an awesome collection of different VR experience apps and games – and it’s all completely free. With the Apps and Games Guide you can ride a behemoth (and find out what a behemoth is!), drive a hill-climb on Mount Washington, fly a Swiss Fighter Jet, get scared in 360º, and watch hundreds of VR videos and access loads of VR games. For a sample of what Android VR has to offer, this is definitely the best introduction to the kind of games and apps which are available in Cardboard VR. A great overview of the best VR apps and games for Android.
Best Premium VR Apps and Games
#9 – Best Premium VR Games and Apps for Android – Best Classic Game
Hidden Temple (MSRP $3.99)
Hidden Temple is probably the most classically designed game available on the Android platform. Feeling like it dates back to the early Treasure Hunt games of the seventies and eighties, but with much, much sharper graphics, Hidden Temple provides a classic search for mythical treasure in the midst of an ancient temple. It’s all creepered up in the middle of an unnamed jungle with lush, vivid detail. In classical 80’s PC game style, you have to collect different items, solve some weird riddles, and discover the way into (and out of) secret chambers. The fantastic 360° graphics make a big difference though, so if you have ever played some of the old legacy games, you will understand just how far forward VR has allowed us to jump. And that makes this one of the best VR games for Android phones.
#10 – Best Premium VR Games and Apps for Android – Best Stunt Game
Caaaaardboard (MSRP $1.99)
Caaaaardboard is, as the name suggests, a scream fest, but not because it is full of zombies or flesh eating door-mats. No, Caaaaardboard is a kind of virtual parkour on steroids, where you get to leap around a virtual Boston, jumping from building to building, to statue, to ground, all while pulling off crazy stunts and flipping the virtual bystanders, and earning kisses and hugs from your adoring fans. This is a little-known title and is one of the few VR apps which is only available on Android. Caaaaardboard is an odd and quirky game which none of your friends will ever have heard of, so you might be able to improve your megastar rating by introducing them to this thoroughly enjoyable VR free-running game.
#11 – Best Premium VR Games and Apps for Android – Best Tank Game
Tank Training (MSRP $1.99)
We mentioned driverless tanks earlier on, and it is not a coincidence that one of the best VR war-related games is called Tank Training. This game is a few years old now, and was the first ever VR tank game for Android, winning Top Game in the 2015 Indie Video Games ratings. The game has been updated to keep up with new technology and performance, and still offers a visually stunning environment. It’s set in a hardcore desert battlefield surrounded by palms, wherein you drive your tank from point to point, destroying as many training targets as possible. The landscape and the machinery is all rendered in fantastic 3D graphics. Tank Training is designed to provide you with a feel of the training which real world tank teams experience, accompanied by a stunning sound track.
#12 – Best Premium VR Games and Apps for Android – Best Space Fighter Game
Minos Starfighter VR (MSRP $0.99)
Minos Starfighter VR takes me back to the very earliest of space fighter-based shoot-em-up arcade games. It has the look and feel, and almost the smell, of standing in a noisy video arcade, rattling away at thousands of oncoming aliens in their various guises, with the joystick and button interfaces of those early games. Of course, Minos Starfighter VR is something completely different. Today we use head movement or gamepads to fly our personal space fighter through visually intense space battles against progressively tougher enemies. Minos Starfighter VR used to be called End Space VR, and remains one of the leading VR games for Google Cardboard. Despite fabulous graphics and incredible extensive options and attack modes, it is not expensive and contains no in-app purchases. Minos Starfighter VR delivers one of the most immersive VR experiences available on the Cardboard platform, having been performance optimized to provide a convincing and highly fluid VR experience. It’s undeniably one of the best VR games for Android.
An Introduction to Google Daydream
#13 – Best VR Technology for Android – Daydream
Daydream is Google’s second release VR platform, following Cardboard which is a low cost VR system technology from 2014. Google released Cardboard as a low cost VR platform in an attempt to generate interest in VR among a much wider audience than had been available to VR producers before, simply by reducing all the key entry price points. Cardboard itself was free, many of the games and apps were free, and the famous cardboard head-sets came in at under $15, compared with the multi-hundred dollar VR headsets which were then on the market. The big difference with Daydream is that it is built into the Android mobile device operating system. Thus, virtually every new Android phone is classed as “Daydream-ready” and can be used in conjunction with the Google Daydream View headset to participate in VR games and apps. The Daydream platform was released in 2016, so now almost everyone is Daydream and VR-ready, whether they know it or not.
#14 – Best VR Equipment for Android – Daydream View Headset
Daydream View Headset (MSRP $99.00)
With Daydream View, compatible phones are placed in the front compartment of the Daydream View headset, which is made from light-weight fabric with structural reinforcements, and includes a Near-field Communication (NFC) chip for ease of set-up. Originally releases in a slate colored fabric, Daydream View is now also available in crimson and snow color-ways. One of the key differentiators of the Daydream View is its soft and comfortable fabric body, which allows users to wear it for hours much more comfortably than many harder and heavier big-brand viewers. Google Daydream View headsets also come with a rechargeable wireless controller, which is used to interact with the VR experience through buttons presses or device motion, rather like the old Nintendo Wii.
#15 – Best VR Games and Apps for Android – Daydream Best Street Racing Game
Need for Speed™ No Limits VR (MSRP $14.99)
Need for Speed™ No Limits VR brings EA’s iconic street-racing game to Google Daydream. You can choose your car, pick the track, win races when you can, and build your reputation in the illegal street-racing VR world. With sixty events available across twelve tracks, and with thirty nicely-rendered car interiors, you get to choose when, where, and how you want to race, and then just soak up the atmosphere, the flying sparks, and the pounding bass exhaust to get you zoned-in. As always with EA, Need for Speed™ No Limits VR immerses you in one of the most realistic VR racing experiences available on your phone. You are at the center of 360° action as you charge past all other challengers and outgun the police cars trying to take you out of the race, as you vie to be a street-race champion. Utterly absorbing!
Frequently Asked Questions
Which VR app is best for Android?
Cardboard is the high-volume low cost entry into VR on Android. One of two official VR technologies for Android from Google, Cardboard is designed to help you get your compatible low-cost VR headset set up correctly and to give you a tour of basic VR features. You can then download Cardboard-supported apps and VR videos, either free or requiring payment. They’re the best choice of VR apps for Android on a budget.
What are the best VR apps for Samsung?
The Korean company is a big player in the higher cost areas of VR, with their Samsung Gear VR apps and equipment. Favorite apps for Samsung Gear include Poker VR, Virtual VR, Blade Runner VR and Minecraft: Gear VR. Samsung of course also support Cardboard and Daydream and so can run all the best VR games and apps for Android.
What are the best free VR apps?
Worldwide, the gaming industry is estimated to be worth around $100 billion and this is rapidly increasing. However, VR is still a very small component of this, at less than 5%. That too is rapidly changing, with the availability of free gaming apps for Android such as: GoPro VR, VR Sniper, Netflix VR, Zombie Shooter VR, Discovery VR, and of course YouTube VR. VR will change the face of the gaming industry, which is already almost twice the size of the movie industry worldwide.
How can I get free VR games for Android?
This is really simple. Just go to the Google Play online store and type in “free VR games for Android” and a list of literally hundreds of titles will appear, all free to download, though some may include in-app purchases.
Is VR bad for your eyes?
There is a degree of disagreement in this area. The main problem with VR is that your focal length is fixed for potentially long periods of time, because, despite the illusion of depth on the screen, your eyes are actually focused on something literally a few inches away, and are constantly focused on that plane. In everyday life our focus constantly shifts from near to far, and unless we are avidly reading a book of working on a screen, our focal plane constantly shifts in and out. As readers and TV watchers will recognize, extended sessions can lead to eye-strain, which is uncomfortable and annoying but not usually dangerous. But the dangers involved in maintaining such a short focal mode for long periods and doing so frequently remain, as many users of VR apps for Android phones will confirm, largely unknown and unresearched. But too much VR does concern a lot of ophthalmologists, who inevitably recommend limited use, for eye safety.
Does VR improve eyesight?
In general, the answer to this is no, but ophthalmologists and opticians are experimenting with ways to use VR in certain eye tests, and to treat some specific conditions affecting the ability to maintain focus and certain fine-grade pupil alignment issues.
Does VR mess with your brain?
The answer to this appears to be an equivocal YES! People have often reported a few side-effects from extended exposure to VR, including simple things like headaches and eye-strain, but also covering more psychological issues including perception and balance problems, depth perception while driving, and even problems with perceiving the real world as…well, real! Very little research has yet been done on the effects of long-term and frequent VR exposure, so perhaps the cautious doctors are correct – everything in moderation. Unfortunately, for some people the VR experience is highly addictive, so maintaining moderate usage might be difficult. More investigation is needed in this area.
Why does VR give me a headache?
In most cases the cause of VR-related headaches is very simple. The headaches are caused by eye-strain, or occasionally by muscle strain, from wearing a heavy VR headset for too long. In a few other cases and in a few particular games, the optical effects and flashing lights, and also the often very loud accompanying sound effects, can quite simply cause the brain to become over-stimulated. Most of the best apps and games for Android are designed to allow users to limit these effects, but our advice must be: if you feel a headache coming on as you play, stop immediately. If you suffer headaches after you play, cut your usage time until they stop happening. If you go to bed with a headache after an extended VR session and you wake up with the same headache – go see your doctor. There may be something wrong, and/or he may refer you to an ophthalmologist.