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Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry is as hot as ever, with 194 billion downloads last year and more than $100 billion in consumer spending. People spend 90% of their mobile time in apps and more time using their mobile devices than watching TV. Apps aren’t just a way to waste idle hours — they’re big business, one that often seems to change overnight.
In this Extra Crunch series, we help you to keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.


The top apps of the year… and the decade

App Annie this week released its list of the year’s top apps. And this time around, it also included the top apps of the past 10 years in its analysis. Outside of games, Facebook dominated the decade, the firm reported. It ran the four most-downloaded apps of the decade, including Facebook (#1), Messenger (#2), WhatsApp (#3), and Instagram (#4). Other communication and social media apps were also among the most popular over the past 10 years, claiming seven out of the 10 top spots, including Snapchat (#5), Skype (#6) and Twitter (#10). Social video platforms TikTok and YouTube also placed on the list at #7 and #9, respectively. And yes, it’s pretty notable that TikTok — an app that only launched outside of China in 2017 — is one of the most-downloaded apps of the past decade. Meanwhile, even though dating app Tinder was the most profitable app this year, Netflix was the No. 1 app by all-time consumer spend over the past decade.

2019 app downloads and consumer spending

Related to its round-up of the top apps, App Annie also offered some preliminary data on downloads and consumer spending in 2019. Its current figures don’t include calculations from third-party app stores in China, (like those referenced above), which App Annie tends to provide in its annual State of Mobile report. Instead, App Annie reports we’re on track to see 120 billion apps from Apple’s App Store and Google Play by the end of 2019, a 5% increase from 2018. Consumer spending was also up 15% year-over-year to reach $90 billion, it says. Expect a full analysis to come in Q1 2020.

Facebook still sat at the top of the charts for 2019. The company’s Messenger app was the most downloaded non-game app of 2019, followed by Facebook’s main app, then WhatsApp. Tinder switched places with Netflix for the No. 1 spot on this chart — last year, it was the other way around. (For more details, TechCrunch’s full review is here.)

2019 in Mobile Gaming

According to a year-end report by, mobile gaming grew 9.7% year-over-year in 2019 to reach a market value of $68.2 billion. The gaming market as a whole was worth $148.8 billion, the report said. Smartphone games were the biggest piece of this figure, at $54.7 billion, compared with $13.4 billion for tablet games. That means smartphone games are still bigger than PC, browser PC games, boxed and downloaded PC games, and console games.

Big moves in cloud gaming

To beef up its new cloud gaming service Stadia, Google this week bought game development firm Typhoon Studios, who were set to release their cross-platform title and first game, Journey to the Savage Planet. Google had said it wants to build out a few different first-party studios to release content on Stadia, which is where this acquisition fits in. Meanwhile, Facebook this week acquired the cloud gaming startup, PlayGiga, which had been working with telcos to create streaming game technology for 5G.

Stadia has a big mobile component, as its controller can play games on compatible mobile devices like Pixel phones. Gaming has been a big part of Facebook’s mobile efforts, as not only a platform where games can be played, but also a place to watch live game streams, similar to Twitch. But the big gaming trend of the past year (which will continue into 2020) is cross-platform gaming — thanks to games like Fortnite, Roblox and PUBG Mobile, as well as devices like Nintendo Switch, gamers expect to continue playing no matter what screen they happen to be using at the time.

Apple Developer app expands support for China

Apple launched a dedicated mobile app for its developer community in November, with the arrival of the Apple Developer app, which was an upgraded and rebranded version of Apple’s existing WWDC app. The app lets developers access resources like technical and design articles, as well as read news, watch developer videos, and enroll in the Apple Developer program. Now that the program is open to China through the app, Apple announced this week.

From the app, developers in China can start and complete their Apple Developer membership and pay with a local payment method on their iPhone or iPad. They can also renew their membership, to keep their account active. Apple has been heavily investing in growing its international developer community by launching developer academies and accelerators in key regions, among other initiatives. Over the past year, Apple grew its developer community in China by 17%, the company earlier said.

So much for nostalgia, Rewound gets yanked from the App Store

We hope you downloaded this fun app when we told you to in last week’s column! Because now it’s gone.

Rewound, briefly, was a clever music player app that turns your iPhone into a 2000’s era iPod, complete with click wheel nav. The developer was able to sneak the app into the App Store by not including the actual iPod UI, which infringes on Apple’s own product design. Instead, the UI pieces were hosted off-site — on Twitter accounts, for example. Users could find them and download them after they installed the app. Technically, that means the App Store app itself wasn’t infringing, but Apple still kicked it out. The developer also charged a fee to access the Apple Music features, which may have been another reason for its removal.

It’s no surprise Apple took this step, but the developer seems confused as to how the app could be approved then pulled later on, even though it hadn’t changed. That’s actually par for the course for Apple’s subjective, editorial decisions over its App Store, however. Now Rewound, which has 170K+ users after only a few days, will focus on a web app and Android version.

Facebook is building its own OS so it can ditch Android

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Dragon Quest has finally made its way to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Arguably the most iconic Japanese role playing game series of all time has landed in one of the worlds most popular fighting games, with Hero. Every bit of DLC for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is exciting, but this latest addition is special for several reasons.

This pack doesnt just add a new playable character to the already massive roster, it serves as a love letter to one of the biggest franchises in gaming history. Dragon Quests Hero landed as a surprise yesterday, and weve rounded up all you need to know about playing Smash Bros.Hero.

How to add Hero to Smash Bros.

Following Persona 5s Joker, Hero is the second character in Super Smash Bros. Ultimates Fighters Pass. If youve bought the season pass that promises five new challengers, all you need to do is make sure your game has the most recent software update (Patch 4.0), and Hero will be waiting for you when you log in.

But what else can you expect when you fire your game up for the first time? Well, like the Persona pack, this content includes a new map, Yggdrasils Altar, original music tracks, and a Spirit Board featuring Dragon Quest collectibles.

Hero is also available on his own for $5.99, including all the extra goodies. Along with this update, players can buy Mii Fighter costumes based on popular Dragon Quest characters, including an excellent Slime hat.

Who is the Hero?

The first thing you might notice about Hero is that he isnt just one new character. The games director, Masahiro Sakurai, is a big fan of Dragon Quest history, and it shows. This fighter can take the appearance of the protagonists from Dragon Quest XI, Dragon Quest VIII, Dragon Quest IV, and Dragon Quest III. As alternate fighters, there is no advantage or difference between the four versions, aside from their voice actor.

Dragon Quest heroes tend to be young men, imbued with a magical prowess and wielding ancient weapons. Though Hero looks like just another anime swordsman character added to Super Smash Bros, that couldnt be further from the truth.


Hero abilities guide

Players using Hero will attack with a wide variety of spells. While his smash attacks all make use of sword combos, his specials all invoke magic from the Dragon Quest franchise. Neutral moves use a fire spell, while side attacks summon lightning, and both can be charged for more damage. His recovery makes use of a small tornado to get above enemies or back on to the stage.

Magic is the most usefuland the most controversialaspect of Hero. Every spell he casts consumes Magic Points, a meter tracked just above his character portrait on the bottom of the screen. By using Down-B, players can bring up a command selection screen that will offer even more spells to choose from. Thanks to this random assortment of powers, Hero has more options to attack and defend than any other character in the game.

Some of these spells can heal Hero, deflect attacks, or put the enemy to sleep. Others, like Thwack and Flame Slash can deal massive damage. The random elements of Heros command selection make him a highly specialized character. Youll need to be familiar with the full range of his moveset if you want to succeed with him. Some moves, like Magic Burst and Kamikaze, can even put you at a disadvantageor outright kill you!

Tips for playing Hero

This character is a bit heavier and slower than other sword users. Its smart to keep some distance from foes, and use spells smartly to close the distance for a finisher. MP recharges slowly over time, but it replenishes faster as you enter combat. Using sword and throw combos is the best way to deal damage quickly, while watching from afar and looking to cast spells quickly helps keep the pressure on your enemy.

In the professional scene, Hero is already quite controversial. The potential for some unfair, unpredictable matchups is due to his vast array of spells. But Hero is far from broken; playing him well takes just as much practice and perseverance as any other fighter. This is truly one of the most unique characters in theSuper Smash Bros. Ultimateroster,and with Banjo-Kazooie launching later this year, the game will only continue to get better.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimateand theHero DLC is available now, only on Nintendo Switch.

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Mobile gaming continues to hold its own, accounting for 10% of the time users spend in apps — a percentage that has remained steady over the years, even though our time in apps overall has grown by 50% over the past two years. In addition, games are continuing to grow their share of consumer spend, notes App Annie in a new research report out this week, timed with E3.

Thanks to growth in hyper-casual and cross-platform gaming in particular, mobile games are on track to reach 60% market share in consumer spend in 2019.

The new report looks at how much time users spend gaming versus using other apps, monetization and regional highlights within the gaming market, among other things.

Despite accounting for a sizable portion of users’ time, games don’t lead the other categories, App Annie says.

Instead, social and communications apps account for half (50%) of the time users spent globally in apps in 2018, followed by video players and editors at 15%, then games at 10%.

In the U.S., users generally have eight games installed per device; globally, we play an average of two to five games per month.

The number of total hours spent on games continues to grow roughly 10% year-over-year, as well, thanks to existing gamers increasing their time in games and from a broadening user base, including a large number of mobile app newcomers from emerging markets.

This has also contributed to a widening age range for gamers.

Today, the majority of time spent in gaming is by those aged 25 and older. In many cases, these players may not even classify themselves as “gamers,” App Annie noted.

While games may not lead the categories in terms of time spent, they do account for a large number of mobile downloads and the majority of consumer spending on mobile.

One-third of all worldwide downloads are games across iOS, Google Play and third-party app stores.

Last year, 1.6+ million games launched on Google Play and 1.1+ million arrived on iOS.

On Android, 74 cents of every dollar is spent on games, with 95% of those purchases coming as in-app purchases, not paid downloads. App Annie didn’t have figures for iOS.

Google Play is known for having more downloads than iOS, but continues to trail on consumer spend. In 2018, Google Play grabbed a 72% share of worldwide downloads, compared with 28% on iOS. Meanwhile, Google Play only saw 36% of consumer spend versus 64% on iOS.

One particular type of gaming jumped out in the new report: racing games.

Consumer spend in this subcategory of gaming grew 7.9 times as fast as the overall mobile gaming market. Adventure games did well, too, growing roughly five times the rate of games in general. Music games and board games were also popular.

Of course, gaming expands beyond mobile. But it’s surprising to see how large a share of the broader market can be attributed to mobile gaming.

According to App Annie, mobile gaming is larger than all other channels, including home game consoles, handheld consoles and computers (Mac and PC). It’s also 20% larger than all these other categories combined — a shift from only a few years ago, attributed to the growth in the mobile consumer base, which allows mobile gaming to reach more people.

Cross-platform gaming is a key gaming trend today, thanks to titles like PUBG and Fortnite in particular, which were among the most downloaded games across several markets last year.

Meanwhile, hyper-casual games are appealing to those who don’t think of themselves as gamers, which has helped to broaden the market further.

App Annie is predicting the next big surge will come from AR gaming, with Harry Potter: Wizards Unite expected to bring Pokémon Go-like frenzy back to AR, bringing the new title $100 million in its first 30 days. The game is currently in beta testing in select markets, with plans for a 2019 release.

In terms of regions, China’s impact on gaming tends to be outsized, but its growth last year was limited due to the game license regulations. This forced publishers to look outside the country for growth — particularly in markets like North America and Japan, App Annie said.

Meanwhile, India, Brazil, Russia and Indonesia lead the emerging markets with regard to game
downloads, but established markets of the U.S. and China remain strong players in terms of sheer numbers.

With the continued steady growth in consumer spend and the stable time spent in games, App Annie states the monetization potential for games is growing. In 2018, there were 1,900 games that made more than $5 million, up from 1,200 in 2016. In addition, consumer spend in many key markets is still growing too — like the 105% growth in two years in China, for example, and the 45% growth in the U.S.

The full report delves into other regions as well as game publishers’ user acquisition strategies. It’s available for download here.

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The critic was viciously targeted by trolls after speaking out about sexist tropes in video games. She explains how she is still fighting to change the industry and writing a book celebrating women overlooked by history

It has been five years since the feminist critic and blogger Anita Sarkeesian became the target for a staggeringly vicious online hate campaign after producing the online video series Tropes vs Women in Video Games. Given the scale of the harassment she has been experiencing non-stop for half a decade including a continuous barrage of rape and death threats, a bomb scare and a game in which players can punch an image of her face its almost surprising to see her so relaxed and at ease, having played a couple of rounds of Mario Kart at the Guardians London office. Its only when she speaks that she reveals a cautiousness most of us lack; Sarkeesian chooses her words carefully, ever mindful of what may spark even more abuse. The biggest difference is that I dont monitor our social media any more, she says.

Sarkeesian is the founder of Feminist Frequency, a not-for-profit educational organisation that analyses modern medias relationship to societal issues such as gender, race and sexuality. She suffered under Gamergate, the campaign conducted under the guise of representing those concerned about ethics in game journalism, but which was, in reality, a hashtagged rallying cry for those wanting to harass women in the games industry. As Feminist Frequency tweeted in June of this year, Gamergate still exists, still harasses marginalised voices and still affects our daily lives. The abuse has never stopped.

Nonetheless, she says: Ive gotten really fortunate that Feminist Frequency now has staff, and there are people who will look at it. But its a double-edged sword: not having to regularly process horrific abuse means Sarkeesian finds it more difficult when she does see it. She says she finds it horrifying that those who experience online harassment are advised to just toughen up, but says that there isnt much advice she can give. She highlights the importance of self-care, therapy and in her case fitness, but says that to really deal with the problem we need major cultural change.

Sarkeesian was something of a rebel growing up. The daughter of Armenian immigrants, she grew up in Toronto and moved to Orange County, California, when she was 15. She promptly got into drugs and punk music, even shaving her head in high school. Her father, a computer engineer, taught her how to build PCs and, from there, Sarkeesian learned how to make websites by building GeoCities fan pages, most of them for the musician Courtney Love. Internet culture is deeply familiar to her and yet, she feels, it has become ever more unpredictable.

Social media companies need to change the ways in which their platforms operate. Online harassment is very easily done and there are very few consequences for it, she says. Were seeing some of that happening, but it really feels like Band-Aids on a fundamentally flawed structure. Shes more interested in what will come next: When the next big new platform happens, have they thought about how theyre going to integrate anti-harassment structures?

She regularly talks to people at Twitter, often considered the most problematic platform for women, to find ways to make it less toxic. Her work has also had an impact on video games, where more creators are trying to make games without so many of the cliches damsels in distress, women as background props, lack of body diversity and so on that have been discussed in Tropes vs Women. Its been so gratifying to watch the industry shift, she says. Change does not usually happen this quickly.

The FREQ Show.

Still, theres more to be done. The games industry is still unfriendly to its non-fictional women. At the European Women in Games conference in London last month, several women told Sarkeesian that seeing her persevere showed them they could, too, which she finds upsetting. I dont want you to have to put on a shield in order to make it in this industry, she says. She also finds it frustrating to always be known as the woman who survived harassment. Its not a thing that I think Ill ever get away from.

Indeed, women are often remembered for what is done to them rather than what they do. Sarkeesian is trying to combat that trend with Feminist Frequencys other video series Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History and an accompanying book, co-written with Ebony Adams, due to be published in October 2018. It will tell the stories of 25 women who have been overlooked by history, from the 17th-century pickpocket Moll Cutpurse to the 19th-century pirate Ching Shih.

Living through a Trump presidency has propelled her further into activism. The American election destroyed us, she says. We woke up the next morning in tears. Her response is an online series, The FREQ Show, which asks: What do media representations have to do with the current political climate? Season one is under way, and topics range from companies using feminism to sell products to crisis pregnancy centres in the US that mislead women trying to get abortions.

Feminist Frequency has more than 200,000 subscribers on YouTube and works hard to encourage readers to think critically about the representation of race, gender and sexuality in pop culture through analysis of films, television, video games, books and the press. And Sarkeesian says she is as tenacious as she has ever been. [Tropes vs Women] was the biggest thing Ive ever done and it might be my legacy. And it was fucking hard. Still, five years later, she has gathered a community around her and is able to open up. And, yes, even relax a little. Not every stranger is going to hurt me in some way.

The FREQ Show is available to stream on YouTube

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Lack of story and some dodgy characters dont spoil this physical Switch games immensely playable core

The premise of Arms requires a substantial suspension of disbelief. The characters in Nintendos new fighting game mostly seem to have ended up immersing themselves in this sport because their arms (or, in one case, hair), instead of regular arms, are capital-A Arms springy and extendable and ending in interchangeable weaponry. This raises some questions: How do they eat? How do they pick their noses? How do they wipe?

Of course, a game like this doesnt need to make sense, and the marketing makes it clear that Nintendo is perfectly content with the ridiculousness of it all. But given the popularity of the Switch and the focus on multiplayer, Arms could become a hit with a huge online fanbase, and its a shame that the lore and characters are lacking the kind of treatment received by games like Overwatch. There will still be fan fiction and fan art, obviously, it just wont be as compelling.

Style seems an easier fix than substance, however, and what Arms lacks if only a little in character it makes up for in form. As youd expect from a new IP from Nintendo, designed for its unpredictably popular new hybrid console, Arms is unique, colourful, and accessible, with enough complexity to tempt a competitive scene but not so much to make anyone feel alienated.

At every stage, Arms is welcoming. The box art is all big eyes and bold colours, an aesthetic that permeates throughout the game. Motion controls are encouraged, and enjoyable enough to discourage the tendency a more experienced player might have to immediately discard them in favour of the comfort of a pro controller.

Nintendo global president Tatsumi Kimishima (R) and Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aim play Arms at E3 2017. Photograph: Reuters

Playing with a Joy-Con in each hand in what Arms insts is called the thumbs-up grip Joy-Con vertical, buttons facing inwards, thumbs on triggers is comfortable and intuitive; you can get through the tutorial in less than a minute. You tilt both Joy-Con in the same direction to move, tilt them towards each other to block, press buttons with your thumbs to dash or jump or unleash a charged attack, and obviously punch to punch, throwing a long springy arm out to meet its target.

Punch both hands forwards together and your character will grab their opponent and throw them to the ground, which feels so satisfying that you may find yourself performing a throwing motion yourself despite it being completely unnecessary. You can also use tilt (or analogue stick, or D-pad) to steer punches after youve fired them, though it requires a little extra mental energy to remember to do that if, for instance, youve been moving your character right and you need their punch to go left.

There are no complicated combos here. Arms operates on a rock-paper-scissors basis: block a punch, grab an opponent whos blocking, punch to break a grab. In these 3D arenas theres also an emphasis on movement. It feels better to jump and dash to avoid punches and counter before the opponents long Arms have sprung back into place.

Players will soon find a character and play style that suits them, like a lighter character who can easily jump (or, in the case of Ribbon Girl, double jump) out of harms way but can be knocked off their feet with a single blow. Further options come in the form of the Arms themselves; each character starts with three to choose from before each match (and while players who like symmetry might want to choose the same for each Arm its generally better to make them different), but you can use the currency earned in game to unlock more.

Again, different players will find their different preferences. Some Arms are heavy enough to break through incoming punches, some shoot several projectiles spread horizontally or vertically, and others can approach in an arc to attack a defensive opponent from the side. Holding down the dash or jump button will charge a characters Arms so that when theyre released the attack has an elemental effect, perhaps temporarily freezing their opponent so their movement is restricted.

The single-player content encourages experimentation with the different characters and Arms. While theres no real story, which feels like a missed potential in a game with such a varied cast, there is a 10-stage Grand Prix. Choose a character, choose a difficulty level between one and seven, and if you beat all 10 stages that character wins a crown on that level (lower levels are automatically filled in). Completionists who want to beat level 7 with each of the 10 characters will have quite a task ahead of them.

Most stages will be regular fights, though the occasional round of V-ball (volleyball with an explosive ball) or Hoops (basketball where you grab and dunk your opponent) are always welcome. You can also play through an entire Grand Prix with a friend, teaming up against two opponents. Teammates are joined with a spring, so if one is thrown it adversely affects the other, but it does help to have someone else to block attacks coming your way, though this may happen far more often by accident than on purpose.

Arms is a game where the core idea came before the aesthetic trappings Photograph: Nintendo

You can also team up with a friend on the same console when playing online, whether against other friends in a lobby of your making in the sensibly named Friends or against strangers in Party Match, where youre thrown into a lobby in which different groups of players are matched for different modes simultaneously. Complete the Grand Prix at level 4 and youll also unlock Ranked Match, where you can fight strangers to boost your rank. Here, Arms manages to show a little more charm, as the ranks are named for things that can like springs be spiral shaped: snail, lollipop, whirligig, pinwheel.

Elsewhere, however, Arms feels like its missing the extra flavour that would make it practically perfect. The music is annoying, the arenas feel largely uninventive and the characters are hit and miss. Spring Man and Ribbon Girl are generic; Byte & Barq and Helix are a little more interesting. Min Min, with her dragon-themed weapons and Arms made out of noodles, feels like an uncomfortable stereotype. And the fact that the only black character has weaponised hair is definitely a problem.

But Arms appears to be a game where the core idea came before the aesthetic trappings, and that core does work. Anyone can pick up the Joy-Con and punch, and there are few enough other controls that it doesnt take long to learn the rest. Its always easy to tell whats happening on screen, whether thats a grab coming towards you or an elemental effect taking hold, so players can quickly progress to learning how and when to react to an opponents moves. And there are enough combinations of characters and Arms to give those of a more competitive spirit room to grow. Arms is a good starter fighting game, both for players and for Nintendo. Hopefully future updates will give the inevitable franchise a bit more bounce.

Nintendo; Nintendo Switch; 49.99; Pegi rating: 12+

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From Oculus Rift to Google Daydream, VR is getting plenty of hype. Which system should you go for, what do you need to buy, and what should you play?

Until recently, virtual reality had been something of a fantasy for storytellers and technologists. As long ago as 1935, American science fiction writer Stanley G Weinbaum described something like virtual reality in a short story called Pygmalions Spectacles.

But listen a movie that gives one sight and sound. Suppose now I add taste, smell, even touch, if your interest is taken by the story. Suppose I make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it. Would that be to make real a dream?

Technologists might still be working on smell and taste, but Albert Ludwigs magic spectacles eerily foreshadow the current prominence for headsets and 360-degree games, videos and virtual worlds.

Since Ludwigs magic spectacles found their way into print, there have been decades of experimentation around virtual reality, from the first head-mounted VR system in the late 1960s to the first commercial products in the 1980s not to mention Hollywoods interpretation in the1992 film The Lawnmower Man, which shaped mainstream perceptions of virtual reality, or VR, for some time afterwards.

The current age of virtual reality began in 2010, when American teenager Palmer Luckey created the first prototype of a VR headset that would evolve into the Oculus Rift. Two years later, he launched a $250,000 Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to commercialise it and $2.4m of pledges later, the tech industrys interest in VR was reborn. Two years after that, Facebooks CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, liked the Rift so much he bought the company for $2bn.

Palmer Luckey of Oculus VR helped kick off the current wave of VR excitement. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Several competitors have emerged since then, from the HTC Vive and Sonys PlayStation VR to smartphone-powered headsets such as Samsungs Gear VR and Google Cardboard. Meanwhile, hundreds of developers are making VR games and apps, film-makers are exploring the potential for documentaries and animation, and Facebook and YouTube have jumped on the bandwagon with 360-degree videos.

But if youre new to virtual reality, where should you start? In the absence of a passing professor with magic specs, heres everything you need to know about hardware, apps and games.

VR hub page

The basics

The most important piece of a virtual reality kit is the headset, a device like a thick pair of goggles that goes over your eyes. The more expensive, higher quality headsets need to be connected to a computer to run apps and games, while some cheaper ones use a cellphone clipped to the front of the headset.

All headsets need to be used alongside a good quality pair of headphones, and there are other optional accessories from hand controllers to treadmills that are all designed to enhance your simulated experience of being in another world. Hand controllers translate your real-world gestures into whatever game or application youre using, although standard gaming joypads can also be used.

VR devices have their own app stores, similar to smartphone app stores, where you can browse and download games and apps. Some of these stores are accessed using the device itself, while others the VR section of the Steam digital games store, for example can be browsed on your computer.

High-end headsets

The Oculus Rift is now on sale across the world. Photograph: Frantzesco Kangaris/PA

Oculus Rift

Four years after its first crowdfunding campaign, the first commercial version of Oculus Rift launched in early 2016, sold initially from the Oculus VR website and gradually made its way to retailers around the world.

Until now, you needed a powerful PC to use the Oculus Rift. The minimum specs for an Oculus Ready PC are on the official website, with Dell, HP, Alienware and Asus all offering VR-ready machines. Oculus VR has also launched bundles of Rift with a PC, such as the $2,050 Alienware bundle.

That said, Oculus has just announced that thanks to some technology it has dubbed asynchronous spacewarp, the Rift will now work with PCs costing as little as $500.

Oculus is expanding its hardware offering, and in December Oculus will launch a dedicated Oculus Touch controller, which translates your hand gestures into the virtual environment. At $199, its not cheap.

Price: $599 (549) includes the headset with built-in headphones and mic, movement sensor, remote and Xbox One controller.

Youll also need: a powerful PC check the recommended specs.

Best for: early adopters, and anyone keen for a first-hand view of how Facebook will make virtual reality more social.

Verdict: Oculus Rift kickstarted the newest generation of VR and has an inventive community of developers making games and apps for it even if a few have ditched it in protest over its founders political activities. Facebooks financial backing should ensure the Rift is in it for the long haul, too.

10 Oculus Rift apps and games to try

  • Chronos: wonderful-looking role-playing game with plenty of depth
  • Minecraft VR: the blocky building game suits VR well
  • Elite: Dangerous: epic space game gets even more epic with a headset
  • Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes: clever multiplayer game the headset wearer defuses a bomb while friends try to help
  • EVE: Valkyrie: this space dogfighter was made for VR, and it shows
  • The Climb: part game and part experience, this sees you climbing mountains around the world
  • Jaunt VR: a range of great made-for-VR videos, from documentaries to music
  • Henry: Oculus VRs attempt at a Pixar-quality animated short film
  • Apollo 11 VR Experience: a clever historical app that sends you on the moon-landing mission
  • Within: a mix of bespoke fiction and nonfiction videos made for viewing in VR

HTC Vive

The HTC Vive is a partnership between Taiwanese tech firm HTC and the games company Valve. Valve added a dedicated VR category to its existing Steam digital games store, while HTC has just launched its Viveport site for non-gaming apps.

HTCs Vive has been the most direct competitor for the Oculus Rift so far. Photograph: Chesnot/Getty Images

Vive is a direct rival to Oculus Rift, though several games and apps are available for both devices. Like the Rift, it requires a PC to run its software, and HTC helps buyers get the right kit by maintaining a list of Vive Ready computers, including partners Alienware, HP and MSI.

The Vive has some unique features, including a front-facing camera which, in certain apps, can bring the real world into your virtual environments. You also get two hand-worn gestural controllers in the box, unlike the Rift, which partly explains the higher price.

The Vive also comes with a base station that tracks your movements, so within fairly tight limits you can walk around inside your VR space. This means a longer setup process, comparable to setting up a high-end home-audio system properly rather than just bunging your stereo on a shelf but as more apps and games use the option, it could prove to be the Vives killer feature.

Price: $799 (759) includes the headset, two wireless hand-controllers, two base stations and a link box to connect it to your computer.

Youll also need: a powerful PC check the recommended specs.

Best for: anyone who wants the absolute top-spec (for now) home VR system, with a mix of gaming and non-gaming.

Verdict: HTC Vive is the most expensive system on the market, and also the one that takes most effort to set up. Yet once youve done that, the ability to walk around within your virtual space, as well as turn your head, is impressive. The involvement of Valve, with its Steam store, means theres a big community of developers too.

10 HTC Vive apps and games to try

  • Job Simulator: a big word-of-mouth hit; its 2050 setting simulates jobs taken over by robots
  • Elite: Dangerous: epic space game gets even more epic with a headset
  • Cosmic Trip: gripping first-person real-time strategy game about colonising alien planets
  • The Brookhaven Experiment: survival-based horror game with plenty of monsters and scares
  • Fantastic Contraption: originally a 2D machine-building puzzler, this works beautifully in 3D and VR
  • Tilt Brush: Googles app is one of the early creative joys in VR: paint in the 3D space around you in a blur of neon
  • Jaunt VR: a great range of made-for-VR videos, from documentaries to music
  • Apollo 11 VR: clever historical app that puts you in the moon landing mission
  • theBlu: if you enjoyed the BBCs Blue Planet, this is a must for its glorious VR ocean life
  • AltspaceVR: interesting attempt at social VR, updating the second life virtual world idea for current headsets

Sonys PlayStation VR will soon be on sale. Photograph: Christopher Jue/EPA

Sony PlayStation VR

The third big gun in the VR race is Sonys PlayStation VR headset, which launched in October 2016 as an accessory for the PlayStation 4 games console. Both the PlayStation 4 and new PlayStation 4 Pro are compatible with the headsets, but the pro will run VR games at higher screen resolutions and frame rates.

PlayStation VR will use the PS4s standard console controller, the DualShock 4, but youll need the $60 PlayStation Camera accessory too.

Sony is keen for PlayStation VR to be more than a solitary experience: a feature called VR Social Screen shows what youre seeing in the headset on your TV screen, so friends can join in or watch.

Being part of the PlayStation world inevitably means that games are an even bigger focus for PlayStation VR than for Oculus Rift and Vive. Sony has more than 100 games confirmed already, with 50 of them due to arrive by the end of 2016.

Price: $399 (350) for the headset, processor unit, earphones and cables.

Youll also need: PlayStation Camera, which costs $45 (39). Although you can use standard PS4 joypads for games, some will support the PlayStation Move motion controllers, which cost $99 (70) for a twin-pack.

Best for: gamers or PlayStation 4 gamers at least, since theres (unsurprisingly) no cross-console compatibility with Xbox One or Nintendos consoles.

Verdict: as the first console-connected VR headset out of the blocks, PlayStation VR is also the most affordable high-end model even if you have to buy the PS4 to run it. There are some impressive launch titles, while Sonys clout means there will be a strong pipeline of titles in the months and years ahead, though there may be slimmer pickings for non-game VR apps.

10 PlayStation VR apps and games to try

  • Rez Infinite: brilliant reboot of classic rhythm game Rez
  • Tumble VR: clever puzzle game that involves piling up blocks
  • EVE Valkyrie: this space dogfighter game was specially made for VR, and it shows
  • Batman: Arkham VR: crime-solving strategy with the Dark Knight
  • Superhypercube: first-person puzzler with trippy graphics
  • Thumper: racing, shooting and rhythm-action combine
  • Job Simulator: a big word-of-mouth hit; its 2050 setting simulates jobs taken over by robots
  • PlayStation VR Worlds: from gangsters to racing, this collection of VR mini-games shows off Sonys VR tech
  • Headmaster: use your noggin to complete a series of football-heading challenges
  • Driveclub VR: slick racing game puts you in the cockpit of 80 motors

For a deeper dive into these games, see the Guardians VR apps roundup

Budget headsets

Samsung Gear VR

With Gear VR, were into the category of VR headset that use your smartphone as both the screen and processor. Samsungs headset uses technology from Oculus VR, although it isnt as powerful as the Rift. It only works with Samsungs S6 and S7 smartphone series, as well as the Galaxy Note7 phablet (though if you still have a Note7 put the device down and step away slowly the phone has been the subject of an international recall after a problem with exploding batteries).

Gear VR can be bought as a standalone device, but some retailers will include one in when you buy a new Samsung smartphone so its worth scouting about for deals.

Games and apps are available through Samsungs Oculus Home software, with a growing catalogue of apps, games and content. For Samsung owners, the Gear VR is an affordable way to explore virtual reality even if its graphical capabilities and the processor of the device running its software are less powerful than its rivals.

Price: $100 (100) for the headset.

Youll also need: a recent Samsung smartphone or phablet.

Best for: cost-conscious VR newcomers who dont want to be tied to a computer or console while exploring virtual worlds and games.

Verdict: Gear VR should help grow a more mainstream audience for VR, and has a growing collection of apps and games. Its one restriction is that it can only be used with Samsung smartphones, so anyone with an iPhone or other Android handset is out of luck.

10 Gear VR apps and games to try

  • Lands End: from the makers of Monument Valley, this is an eerie game of exploration
  • Minecraft: Gear VR: blocky building game suits VR well
  • Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes: clever multiplayer game the headset wearer defuses a bomb while friends try to help
  • Smash Hit: inventive rhythm-puzzle game
  • Gunjack: sci-fi shooter that flings ships and bullets at you
  • NextVR: live sports and music in virtual reality
  • AltspaceVR: interesting attempt at social VR, updating the second life virtual world idea for current headsets
  • The Economist VR: intriguing virtual tours from the digitally recreated Mosul Museum to Osakas secrets
  • Jaunt VR: a great range of made-for-VR videos, from documentaries to music
  • Within: bespoke fiction and nonfiction videos made for VR

Google Cardboard and Daydream

Cardboard was Googles first commercial attempt at virtual reality, and yes, the headsets were made of actual cardboard.

Google made the spec for these flat-pack headsets available to other companies, which means there are 13 models from Googles own basic $15 model to Specks $70 Pocket-VR with CandyShell Grip, although the latter includes a protective case for your smartphone.

Googles Daydream View is fabric, not plastic (or cardboard). Photograph: Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

There are a growing number of apps available on the Android and iOS app stores, from 360-photography to games and documentaries. While not as powerful as more expensive headsets, there is some exciting experimentation going on here.

Googles follow-up to Cardboard, Daydream, was announced in May 2016. Its software will be built into the new Android smartphones (it is part of Nougat, the latest version of Android) as well as hardware, in the form of headsets and handheld controllers. Googles headset, the Daydream View, is made of fabric rather than cardboard, and comes with a motion controller used to translate your gestures into apps and games.

Google services such as YouTube, Street View and Photos will all support Daydream headsets, and launch partners include Netflix, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Guardian, JK Rowlings Fantastic Beasts and Major League Baseball who will all provide apps. The Guardians offering, Underworld, explores Londons subterranean web of Victorian sewers and lost waterways in the shoes of an urban explorer.

Price: Google Cardboard headsets vary in price, but most are $15-$25 (15-25). Daydream View costs $79 (69), including a controller.

Youll also need: a smartphone Cardboard headsets and apps support a wide range of Android phones and iPhones. Daydream View is more restricted: at launch it will work with Googles new Pixel smartphones, but a range of Daydream-supporting Android phones will come out over the next year.

Best for: getting started with VR cheaply and easily, particularly for non-Samsung owners.

Verdict: Daydream View will offer strong competition for the Gear VR. Cardboard is excellent for dabblers, and while some of its apps are fairly limited experiences, others offer plenty to see, do and play.

10 Google Cardboard apps and games to try

  • Cardboard: Googles own collection of VR demos for Cardboard is a great place to start
  • Bohemian Rhapsody Experience: Google teamed up with Queen for this fun VR music video
  • NYT VR: the New York Times take on VR with video news reports
  • Star Wars: the films official app includes the story of Jakku Spy
  • Sisters: one of the scariest VR horror apps
  • Inside Abbey Road: virtual tour of Londons famous Abbey Road Studios
  • Cardboard Camera: shoot 360-degree photos with sound on your smartphone, then relive them in your headset
  • YouTube: the standard YouTube app, but you can watch its 360 and VR videos come to life through Cardboard
  • InMind VR: clever medical arcade adventure lets you travel into a patients brain
  • 6×9: the Guardians compelling exploration of the psychological damage caused by solitary confinement

Microsoft in the wings

As well as working on the augmented-reality headset HoloLens, Microsoft is working with hardware partners to make a range of headsets for Windows PCs, starting at $299 when they go on sale in the spring of 2017.

Were really thinking how are we going to democratise this technology, how are we going to work with these partners to build devices that can reach all price points, that can reach everyone on the planet, Microsofts Terry Myserson told ZDNet. One way you can think about these VR accessories is as an external monitor. Its not technically accurate, but conceptually I think it works quite well. You put on the headset and youre looking at another monitor.


A slew of other virtual reality products are coming on to the market beyond the big-name headsets. The early success of Oculus Rift on Kickstarter has made the crowdfunding site a focus for VR startups touting interesting hardware.

From headsets (Impression Pi, ANTVR, Cmoar, Opto, FOVE) to controllers (STEM System, Control VR, Gloveone, iMotion) there are plenty of projects to explore, although be warned the Oculus, HTC, Sony and Samsung devices receive the lions share of attention, so youll need to research developer support for each device to work out if its compatible with your system before committing your cash.

There is also the OSVR project by gaming hardware company Razer, which is trying to create open standards around VR so that people can mix and match different headsets and accessories. For now, there are two versions of its prototype hacker development kit available to buy, although Razer is hoping manufacturers will use its standards to make their own headsets.

How do you film VR?

The cameras and editing software needed to film and then knit together VR footage involve a whole other level of complexity and expense. At $45,000, Nokias OZO camera is out of most peoples price range but is a good example of the kind of kit that professional film-makers are using.

Samsungs Gear 360 is a more affordable VR camera. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

More affordable is Samsungs Gear 360 spherical camera, which costs $350, and which has front and rear lenses to capture 180-degree shots both horizontally and vertically to create panoramic video or photo. Its still an expensive gadget for an average person, but if you want to explore making your own VR videos, its a good starting point.

Pokmon Go is the most popular current app using AR technology. Photograph: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

There are a number of other 360-degree cameras available, like the Ricoh Theta S, Kodak Pixpro SP360 4K Action Cam, LG 360 Cam, Giroptic 360cam and the Vuze Camera. Its also worth keeping tabs on crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo as new camera projects pop up regularly.

360 vs virtual reality

The terms 360 and virtual reality are often used interchangeably, but there are important differences. The 360-degree photos and videos are panoramic pics and videos that have been stitched together, so you can turn your head to look around you. But these arent virtual worlds: you dont have free movement to explore them as you do in full virtual reality experiences.

All VR devices offer a mixture of both, however: you can watch 360 videos or explore virtual worlds with Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard.

Augmented reality vs virtual reality

There are other headsets that let you experience digital wizardry but offer a different experience called augmented reality.

While virtual reality is about immersing you in an entirely virtual world, viewed through a screen in your headset, the real world outside you isnt part of the experience at least not until you trip over the cat or accidentally knock out your child while immersed elsewhere. But augmented reality, as the name suggests, is about augmenting or adding to reality reality. You might be looking at your cat or up your street, but there could be digital characters and content overlaid on them.

Glass, the hi-tech spectacles launched by Google in 2014, were an AR device, but the company has given up on trying to sell them as a mainstream idea. More hardware is on the way, however: Microsofts HoloLens will be the augmented reality equivalent of PlayStation VR and with a similar emphasis on gaming; the popular Minecraft has been one of the key demos for it.

Meanwhile, a Florida-based startup called Magic Leap has raised an astonishing $1.4bn in funding for its AR headset and technology, giving only a few teasers on what it looks like and how it will work.

For now, the most affordable way to try augmented reality is through smartphone apps, which overlay text and graphics on the feed from the camera. The game Pokmon Go and the face-mangling lenses in Snapchat both use augmented reality. Others are more specific: the DFS Sofa and Room Planner (see how a new sofa might look in your living room), Plane Finder AR (see where that plane overhead is going by pointing your camera at it) and Mardles (make 3D characters jump out of stickers for kids).

Facebooks CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, sees VR as a social technology, not just a gaming one. Photograph: Stephen Lam/Reuters

Virtual reality beyond gaming

Games loom large in modern-day VR, partly because the original Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR headsets were made primarily for gamers, and also because games are the most easily understandable entertainment category to show off this technology. But as Mark Zuckerberg explained after announcing Facebook was buying Oculus VR, theres a lot more to this than just games.

This is just the start. After games, were going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face to face just by putting on goggles in your home, wrote Zuckerberg.

This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.

Journalism and film-making

Hundreds of developers are working on VR games, but there is lots of activity around other kinds of entertainment and media too. Journalists, film-makers and a growing number of documentary-makers are using 360-degree cameras to find new angles on stories, if youll pardon the pun.

Film-maker Chris Milk set up his virtual reality company in 2014 to produce and distribute VR documentaries, and offers films shot in New York, Cuba and even Syria. Im not interested in the novelty factor, Milk told the Guardian in 2015. Im interested in the foundations for a medium that could be more powerful than cinema, than theatre, than literature, than any other medium weve had before to connect one human being to another.

Traditional media companies have also experimented with VR journalism, from the New York Times VR films to the Guardians 6×9 project, which explores solitary confinement. As the cost of shooting and editing VR footage comes down, expect to see more media companies exploring the potential.