Travel the cosmos and explore the ISS in the best VR space experiences.
VR gaming is great but there are also a wealth of smaller VR “experiences” that let you explore places and situations that would otherwise be beyond your reach. Space has its own subset of experiences which range from letting you board the International Space Station to giving you the power to bend planets to your will.
Yes, space exploration is still the domain of a select few, based on their skill sets, celebrity status or bank balances. Most of us won’t get to escape Earth’s gravitational pull, let alone live on the moon. But, thanks to the best VR headsets , all you need to do to take to the stars (or demolish them) is to don a headset and enter virtual reality.
It’s not absolutely the same, your feet will remain firmly planted on Earth, but VR experiences can be the next best thing to actually going to space and with VR more affordable than it’s ever been, there’s no better time to blast off. So, to give you a head start, we’ve rounded up six of the best VR space experiences.
1. Space Explorers: The ISS Experience
- Headsets: Oculus Quest, Oculus Quest 2
- Price: $2.99 for each of 4 episodes (via Oculus Store)
One the best VR space experiences, Space Explorers: The ISS Experience was filmed aboard the International Space Station, over the course of two years. Exclusive to the Oculus Quest it’s an absolutely fascinating look at life aboard the station and, while only two of the four half-an-hour episodes have been released, it offers some insights you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.
It is largely non-interactive; you’re limited to jumping back and forth through each mini documentary’s timeline. But Space Explorers: The ISS Experience is well worth your time, not just because of how astonishing it feels to “be” on the ISS (even if you can’t freely explore), but also because it happily delves into the mundane.
Yes, there are interviews and so forth, and the final episode is set to contain a spacewalk. But the quieter moments are just as vital; a crew member’s sorrow over her comrades’ imminent departure is framed by an extended scene of them all dining together. And, thanks to the VR close-ups, it feels like you’re right there with them; I had the urge to grab a can of tuna as it drifted by.
Two years of footage has, naturally, been edited down but it still has an air of honesty and if you’ve the slightest interest in the ISS it’s a must-see.
2. Mission: ISS
- Headsets: Oculus Quest, Oculus Quest 2
- Price: Free (via Oculus Store)
Ever wanted to roam around the International Space Station? Mission: ISS lets you do just that and the freedom it bestows upon you is really something. You can “cheat” and navigate the ISS using the controller’s joystick, but pushing yourself along using the various wall-mounted bars makes for a more authentic, if slightly chaotic outing.
Mission: ISS’s attention to detail is real a joy; you can’t go around just flipping switches, but chances are you’ll spend ages poring over buttons, reading labels and batting ketchup bottles about. You get to play with the ISS’s docking arm, but if you’d prefer a truly harrowing experience, spacewalking is where it’s at.
The stars are quite clearly textures but once you’re out there it still feels disquietingly real. In your head the only thing keeping you in the vicinity of the ISS is a few metal hand-grips and your SAFER pack. And this is all from a free game, with not an in-app purchase in sight; short of drifting off into the void, you really can’t go wrong.
- Headset: Oculus Rift & Oculus Quest
- Price: $9.99 (via Oculus Store)
Spheres is not so much a scientifically-accurate exploration of space as it is a semi-interactive art piece. It’s split into three ten minute chunks, narrated by Millie Bobby Brown, Jessica Chastain and Patti Smith respectively. Their presence, compared to regular voice actors, doesn’t elevate Spheres but, for the most part, the narration (and writing) comes across as sincere, only once edging into near-parody.
The voice-overs serve to set the scene, but it’s the stunning visuals and subdued but haunting soundtrack that make Spheres such a memorable meditation on the cosmos. All three chapters, Chorus of the Cosmos, Songs of Spacetime and Pale Blue Dot are excellent but Songs of Spacetime is worth the asking price alone.
Writer Eliza McNitt’s interpretation of a black hole is breathtaking enough but Spheres briefly puts you in control of this galactic sinkhole, letting you reach out to slowly devour a doomed sun. Then, just when you’ve seen the most Spheres has to offer, it takes things to a whole other level, but it wouldn’t be fair to spoil the surprise.
4. Discovering Space 2
- Headset: Valve Index, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift (Oculus Quest via air link or cable)
- Price: $9.99 (via Oculus Store), $9.99 (via Steam Store)
The bad news is Discovering Space 2, which sees you soaring around the Solar System in a sci-fi ship, sometimes resembles a theme park ride rather than a real space voyage. The good news is it feels like the kind of cutting edge computer-assisted ride you’d have to wait two years to get tickets for.
You can follow one of several guided tours, or just explore the Solar System at will. The latter is where Discovering Space 2 comes into its own because it manages to convey the vastness of the distance between planets. Yes, you can throttle up and travel at currently unattainable speeds if you want to reach Mars in minutes. But just pointing yourself at a planet and being informed it’ll take 79 days to reach is hugely sobering, as you gaze at the blackness through your cockpit.
The icing on the cake is you can fly down to each planet (there’s an optional autopilot) and while their surface textures are fairly low resolution, it’s a welcome addition. Once you get used to the fact that a few planets, the Earth in particular, don’t quite sell their size, Discovering Space 2 is a worthy exploration.
- Headset (not required): Valve Index, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift (Oculus Quest via air link or cable), Windows Mixed Reality, can run without headset.
- Price: $24.99 (Early Access, via Steam Store)
SpaceEngine, while still in Early Access, is a vast interactive planetarium where the sky definitely isn’t the limit. It’s an impressive experience, more so when you strap on a VR headset and find yourself surrounded by the stars. You can explore Earth’s planetary neighbours or select a distant system and, in a matter of seconds, be standing (or floating) in unfamiliar space. Half of the fun of playing SpaceEngine is clicking away at stars, not knowing what you’re going to discover when it takes you there.
It does incorporate actual astronomical data, so you can soar off to Trappist-1 or any number of known systems. Some systems and planets are procedurally generated and are labelled as such; the more you explore the uncharted regions of space, the more SpaceEngine has to give you its best guess or make something up entirely.
However, as immersive as SpaceEngine is, the VR interface is pretty clunky. For example, if you want to enter the name of a system you need to lift your visor and use the keyboard. As a work in progress, it’s well worth diving into but overhauling the VR controls should be next on the developers’ to-do list.
6. Universe Sandbox
- Headsets (not required): Valve Index, HTC Vive, Oculus Rift (Oculus Quest via air link or cable), Windows Mixed Reality
- Price: $29.99 (via Steam Store)
Universe Sandbox is less a planetarium and more an opportunity for you to perform your own experiments on an unsuspecting system. These experiments range from the low key (if potentially prophetic) - raising Earth’s temperature a few degrees - to the malevolent – dropping the blue supergiant Rigel into the Solar System and watching everything fall apart.
However, donning a compatible VR headset takes Universe Sandbox’s stellar shenanigans to a sublime new level. Zoom into Earth and it’ll float so close you’ll swear you could grab it. Launch the Moon towards our precious planet and watch awe-struck as the annihilation unfolds before your eyes. Planetary events that are striking when viewed on a monitor become absolutely spectacular when witnessed in VR and, unlike SpaceEngine, the VR controls are entirely intuitive.
Is Universe Sandbox accurate? Creators Giant Army state they “strive to keep the results as realistic as possible”, though they admit it doesn’t take account of relativity. So we wouldn’t recommend you use it to support your dissertation, but if you’ve ever contemplated our solar system and thought “What if?”, Universe Sandbox will give you hours of planet-meddling joy.
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Chris is a freelance journalist who, aside from covering games and gaming-related tech, has a taste for horror, sci-fi and the post-apocalyptic. As well as Space.com, you can find his work at The Escapist, GameSpew (where he’s the morning news writer) and more. You can follow him on Twitter @MarmaladeBus.