You probably got that Oculus Rift or HTC Vive to play games, but VR can also offer a seriously immersive video-watching experience. Here’s how to watch a movie on your headset, whether it’s a regular 2D movie, a 3D movie, or a full 360-degree VR production.
Why Would I Want to Do This?
Why watch a video when VR was made for so much more? Well…it’s really cool! Imagine watching a 3D movie, on a 100 inch curved TV that completely fills your field of vision. It’s like having Barney Stinson’s TV strapped to your head.
There are downsides, though. VR is still in its infancy, and your headset’s resolution isn’t really good enough to offer the highest quality video. As in games, you can definitely see the pixels, and your movie will have that “screen door effect” on it. In addition, I found my eyes started to hurt after an hour or so, and the straps started to hurt my head after an hour and a half. Your mileage may vary, of course, but it’s probably not ideal for watching full movies. It is great, however, for watching your favorite scenes in a way you’ve never seen them before, or watching shorter videos meant to be seen in 3D or VR.
If that gets you pumped to watch the Tron Legacy lightcycle battle in huge, in-your-face 3D, here’s how to make it happen.
The Four Kinds of Videos You Can Watch on Your VR Headset
There are four kinds of video you can watch in VR, each of which you can obtain from different sources:
- Regular 2D video: These are the normal videos you find on YouTube, or rip from DVDs and Blu-ray discs.
- 3D video: You’ve seen 3D movies at the theater, and you can buy those 3D movies on Blu-ray, too. To watch them in VR, you can rip that 3D Blu-ray to a “side by side” or “over under” format, which is playable on a VR headset in 3D. (You’ll usually have the choice between Full SBS, which contains each eye in full resolution, or Half SBS, which contains each eye in subsampled half resolution. Full SBS videos are noticeably higher quality, but take up more hard drive space and more graphics power to play.)
- 180 or 360 degree video: These types of video are fairly new, but you can check out lots of them on YouTube or download them from other sources. On your 2D monitor, you can use the mouse to drag the video around to see different views, but played on an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, you can actually look around using your headset’s head tracking. It’s very cool.
- Full VR video: This format combines 3D and 180 or 360 degree footage for a completely immersive, 3D, head-tracking experience. You can watch a few for free on YouTube, and buy some video demos from companies like VideoBlocks. Though if we’re being honest, most of the VR videos out there right now are, well, porn.
There aren’t nearly as many 360 and VR videos out there as 2D and 3D movies, but as VR continues to grow, so will the selection.
How to Watch Videos on the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive
There are a few different apps for watching videos in VR, but after testing a few, we settled on Whirligig. You can download an old free version on their web site, or get the $4 version on Steam, which gets occasional updates, improvements, and new features. I definitely recommend buying the $4 version, but you can try out the free version to see if it’s your cup of tea first. (Note that the free version may stutter when playing large files.)
If you have an Oculus Rift, you’ll first need to enable Unknown Sources to allow SteamVR to use your Oculus Rift headset. By default, the Rift only allows apps from the Oculus Store, which means SteamVR and Steam games won’r work.
If you buy the $4 version of Whirligig on Steam, I also recommend opting into the beta. Whirligig is still under development, and if you want the best playback possible, you’ll need the beta version with all the latest improvements. I found that large, full SBS videos stuttered in older, non-beta versions of Whirligig on my PC, but played just fine in the latest beta.
So, after buying Whirligig, open Steam, head to the Library tab, and click “Games” in the upper right-corner of the sidebar. Click “Software” to find Whirligig in your Library.
Then, right-click on Whirligig in Steam’s sidebar, and go to Properties. Click the “Betas” tab, and opt into the latest beta in the dropdown menu. Whirligig will update to the latest possible version.
Lastly, depending on the videos you plan to watch, you may need to download and install the K-Lite Codec Pack. I recommend installing the Basic version. Be sure to click the “Expert” radio button and pay close attention–K-Lite does come bundled with crapware, you just need to decline to install it during the wizard.
Once that’s done, launch Whirligig in your VR environment of choice, and you’ll be presented with Whirligig’s heads-up overlay. You can control Whirligig’s menus with the HTC Vive’s touchpad, an Xbox 360 or One controller, or a mouse and keyboard. I highly recommend using a mouse and keyboard, as it’s much easier than any of the gamepads.
To watch a video, click the Browse button in the top left-hand corner of the menu. You’ll be able to browse your hard drive to choose a video file. (Whirligig also claims to support YouTube links in its Settings, but I couldn’t get that to work at the time of this writing.)
As the video starts to play, you’ll probably want to adjust some settings using Whirligig’s heads-up controls. Here’s what we recommend for each type of video:
- Regular 2D video: Set Projector to Cinema or Cinema Curved.
- 3D video: 3D video comes in a few different forms, so check the video you downloaded–or the settings you used when you ripped it–to see whether it’s Half Side-By-Side, Full Side-By-Side, Half Over-Under, or Full Over-Under. Set the Projector to either Cinema or Cinema Curved, then select SBS or OU instead of Mono. If the video is Half SBS, set Stretch to “100” so it displays in the proper aspect ratio.
- 180 or 360 degree video: The video will usually tell you whether it’s 180 degrees or 360 degrees on the site you download it from. If it’s 180 degrees, set Projector to “Fisheye” and set FOV to 180. If it’s 360, set Projector to “Barrel” and FOV to 360. You may also have to tweak “Tilt” for 180 videos or “Rotation” for 360 videos so that the video is facing the right direction.
- Full VR video: Combine the correct settings from “3D video” and “180 or 360 degree video” sections of this list.
You can also adjust the Scale and Distance settings to fit your tastes, or click the Settings cog in the lower right-hand corner for even more options. Whirligig also has some other cool features like saving different presets, but these basics should get you up and running pretty quickly. For now, sit back and enjoy the movie!
Whirligig isn’t the only way to watch videos on your VR headset, but it was the best cost-to-performance ratio in our tests. If you’re willing to pay a little more, Virtual Desktop ($15) is also pretty good, and can do a lot more than play videos–it is, as the name implies, a full version of your PC’s desktop in virtual reality. Just play a video in your favorite desktop player (like VLC), set it to full-screen, and go. If you have problems with Whirligig, Virtual Desktop is almost sure to impress.