A few days ago, I was nearly crushed by a whale. It leaped out of the water, rotated above me, then touched down inches from my dinghy. I yelped—and heard, from far away, an amused chuckle. I also flew above a tranquil sea with glassy-eyed gulls, visited the Eiffel Tower, and jumped off a cliff to see whether I would survive. It was a busy afternoon.

All each activity required was a visit to the cartoonish grasslands that serve as the main menu of Cardboard, Google's virtual reality (VR) app that takes users on an array of adventures via a $15 cardboard headset. I was in my living room, having slipped my smartphone into the viewer; the chuckle came from my boyfriend, who was enjoying the sight of a grown woman yelping at thin air.

VR isn't new (the Sensorama, for one, was a midcentury booth that let you watch movies on a vibrating chair while being blasted with pertinent scents), but VR you can use at home came about only recently, and Cardboard is the option that costs little more than a decent bottle of wine. Buying it engendered the optimism that apps often inspire in me; I'm always convinced they will change my life. The one that donates to charity whenever I run? Yeah, I still don't run. The one that offers access to classic novels for free? Have yet to see page 2 of Lady Chatterley's Lover.

However transforming it may or may not be, the experience does boast enough variety to keep me busy. Many VR apps are compatible with Google's viewer, including Within, which features an Indonesian scuba journey, a quest (undertaken with two bunnies) to defeat invasive aliens, and a nature scene in which the user is nearly hit by a train made of birds. In Catatonic, Within's nod to horror films, the user is a captive patient in an asylum; it startled me so badly, I let rip a guttural scream.

"Okay, you're done," my boyfriend said, pulling the viewer away.

But I'm so not done. I can't wait to visit these worlds again, with their strange logic and dizzying panoramas. I want to go spelunking, ride roller coasters, watch Paul McCartney play "Live and Let Die" from four feet away. (And I have to see what else is in the asylum, obviously.)

Will it be any match for real life? Well, no. Not long ago, I visited the actual Eiffel Tower, and the VR version, static and stately, doesn't hold une bougie to the sight of its lights frenziedly flashing in the night, beheld while I ate pistachio gelato on a brick wall as my feet dangled over a sparkling Seine. That was life-changing.

Better to see VR as its own marvelous thing. When I Cardboarded to the moon, gazing down at earth and up at a soundlessly passing satellite, it was as magical as it was fake. But it was magical. And how often do you get to say that about something you do on your couch?


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