What people are playing, watching and doing in VR in 2016

The most popular VR apps and games and the trends that might last
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VR isn't quite mainstream yet but millions (yes, millions) of people now own some kind of virtual reality headset, be it a Cardboard viewer or a full-on HTC Vive. We were curious to take a step back and review what people are actually doing in VR. What apps and games are they downloading? Are they big names or indie titles? Are they expensive or free?

This summer is a good time to take a look at what early adopters are doing. Because by Christmas, we will have the new Samsung Gear VR on sale everywhere, PlayStation VR in homes and probably a few Google Daydream headsets to choose from. Once we're talking 10, 20, 30 million, the quality and quantity of VR experiences should really take off.

Read this: How many wearable tech and VR devices have actually sold?

The top tens and number of downloads or hours played below are a snapshot of what early adopters and VR enthusiasts are trying out i.e. what might work in virtual reality when there isn't the option to stick to titles you've heard of. Before long, we'll have AAA games and TV-calibre episodic series - which is what the hardware needs to shine - but for now, let's take a peek at the early hits in VR apps, games and experiences.

What the casual VR explorer is trying out

What people are playing, watching and doing in VR in 2016

Google Cardboard is the most mainstream platform out there with over five million headsets and viewers out in the wild. With its new platform Daydream's high profile partners like HBO, Hulu, Lionsgate and dedicated YouTube and StreetView apps though, any trends we spot now will be out of date by the autumn so we'll keep this section brief.

So far YouTube has been popular - according to Google's figures, over 350,000 hours of 360-degree video had been watched in Cardboard mode by January and we're sure that has more than doubled with iPhone compatibility and more vids.

The top Cardboard apps and games, as of January, were the free Within (formerly VRSE) app which includes a selection of high quality storytelling and journalism experiences as well as games like horror title Chair in a Room, Proton Pulse and Lamper VR: Firefly Rescue. Generally Cardboard apps have been free or very, very cheap.

As an idea of the number of downloads, Within has had between 500k and 1m downloads from Google Play (as of August) and the rest of the list above are all under 500k so far. Joining Within in the 500k+ club (according to Google Play info) are experiences like the Titans of Space tour, VR Cinema which lets you watch 2D movies on a big virtual display and dino experience Jurassic VR.

Read this: The best Gear VR apps, games and experiences

Let's go one step up to the Gear VR which costs for Galaxy owners (unless they got one bundled) and look at the top selling apps in the Oculus store for Gear VR.

The apps and games in the store are grouped into "top selling VR" and "top free experiences" so we can get a snapshot of what's popular right now if not 'of all time'. People are buying and playing and recommending smartphone-like games like arcade shooter End Space, surefire hit Minecraft Gear VR Edition as well as the brilliantly ported Smash Hit and zombie apocalypse adventure game Into The Dead which has plenty of hype but mixed reviews.

What people are playing, watching and doing in VR in 2016

As with iOS and Android games, it's not all space shooters. There's a healthy mix with two strategy games also among the top selling so far - namely Tactera and Ascension VR. The lines between games and 'experiences' blur but there's also horror experience Affected: The Manor and the aquatic exploration app Ocean Rift. All of these downloads are less than but slightly more than you'd expect for a mobile game.

As for the free stuff, Gear VR owners are gravitating towards names they know - Netflix (which isn't really VR), Within (which includes the Mr. Robot experience), Jurassic World: Apatosaurus and Temple Run VR.

But there has also been room for word-of-mouth hits and VR upstarts like creepy experience Sisters, live VR platform NextVR and animation INVASION! to bubble through. Everything in that list bar NextVR and Within are on 10,000+ downloads.

It's worth noting that compared to Oculus and Vive below, this is pretty large numbers of people using virtual reality. We don't have up to date Gear VR sales figures (it was 300,000 sold in May) but Oculus boasted that in April, one million people used a Samsung VR headset.

What gamers are playing in VR

What people are playing, watching and doing in VR in 2016

The most detailed data we have is from Steam VR and Ars Technica's ongoing Steam Gauge project which tells us what the majority of the 80k - 100k HTC Vive owners so far and the (as yet unknown) number of Oculus Rift owners are downloading from the service for their high end headsets.

As Rifters can also access games via Oculus Home, it's a better picture of what early adopters with to spare are using VR for. But it's still interesting.

Read this: The best HTC Vive games you need to play

As of May, which is still pretty early admittedly after launches (and omitting games that don't use the Vive's controllers which would have skewed the results) the top five most downloaded Steam VR games and experiences so far have been: The Lab, Bossa Studio's Surgeon Simulator VR (free), Heaven Island Life, $9.99 puzzle game Water Bears VR and the Ikea VR Experience (free).

When you bring in data of what people are actually playing, The Lab remains at No.1 but that's Valve's slick and free demo so let's put that to one side. Also in the mix are building game Fantastic Contraption and the now Google-owned 3D illustration tool Tilt Brush, both of which got lots of press and publicity and were bundled in with dev kits.

So it's no surprise that free, affordable/bundled apps and games that make good use of peripherals and that you can replay show off to your mates have been getting most of the early attention.

What people are playing, watching and doing in VR in 2016

One step further and bringing in the number of hours spent playing VR experiences and games: the winner now is Heaven Island Life with Windlands, Space Pirate Trainer and Wareable fave Hover Junkers in the Top 10. As you can see this isn't trying out a gimmick, this is hours and hours of people's lives, yes including developers but still. It's kind of crazy.

Heaven Island Life is an MMO that lets you hang out on a scenic, sunny island with other players. It's only $0.99 which helps, it's social/multiplayer - as is Hover Junkers and others - and gameplay includes teleporting and interacting with objects e.g. throwing stones in the sea or using shells to create a zen garden. It's a place to chill out and maybe that's all it needs to be.

There's definitely a trend for many hours of slower gameplay that lets you soak up and not get overwhelmed by a VR environment. Take Windlands. It's a first person exploration game in which your controllers become grappling hooks. You can speed through challenging levels or slow down and take a look around. Tilt Brush too can be pretty damn relaxing.

YouTube, horror, shooters, 2D movies, Ikea. This will all change within six to 12 months, of course, as more expensive, high profile ports and games tied into movie franchises are launched - we imagine the most popular Vive and Rift games next year will look more like this: Doom VR, Serious Sam VR, Star Trek: Bridge Crew, Rockband VR, Superhot etc etc.

One stat we couldn't find that's sure to change: download figures for VR porn.

Let us know what you're watching, playing and experiencing in VR. Which apps and games do you spend the most time in? Are there Any that you downloaded and only played/used once? What are you still waiting for?


How we test


Sophie was Wareable's associate editor. She joined the team from Stuff magazine where she was an in-house reviewer. For three and a half years, she tested every smartphone, tablet, and robot vacuum that mattered. 

A fan of thoughtful design, innovative apps, and that Spike Jonze film, she is currently wondering how many fitness tracker reviews it will take to get her fit. Current bet: 19.

Sophie has also written for a host of sites, including Metro, the Evening Standard, the Times, the Telegraph, Little White Lies, the Press Association and the Debrief.

She now works for Wired.

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