Week in Tech: VR is everywhere and everything is awesome

Week in Tech March 18

This week we've mainly been strapping buckets to our heads and bumping into things. No, we haven't been on the cider again – we've been getting ourselves ready for virtual reality, which is going to be absolutely huge this year. We discovered what VR games you'll be able to play, what you'll have to pay to play them, and whether a quick bout of Battlefront will have you reaching for a sick bucket. Not only that, but we've discovered Sky's plans for UHD TV, Microsoft's plans for Xbox and why it's possible to tweet pigeons. So strap on your super-specs: it's Week in Tech!

The future on your face

GDC 2016, the annual Games Developers Conference, is taking place in San Francisco this week, and you can't move without bumping into people wearing funny head gear. Virtual Reality is everywhere this year, and we've been able to try the actual products you'll be able to buy. First up, possibly the most important VR product we'll see this year: the Sony PlayStation VR. It isn't as amazing as the Oculus, but at £349 / $399 / AU$549 it's an awful lot cheaper – and there are going to be stacks and stacks of titles for it. Unfortunately it can also cause severe motion sickness, so you might want to try before you buy.

Another VR experience you can try is HTC's Vive, developed in association with Valve. Computer retailer Overclockers UK is modifying its Staffordshire showroom to create 20 square metres of virtual realty playing space in which to try out the Vive – they clearly hope you'll be so impressed you'll immediately slap down £689 for the headset, and order a suitably meaty PC to go with it.

The leading light of consumer VR is, of course, Oculus – and Michelle Fitzsimmons was so impressed by its games that she's already sold her apartment to pay for a headset. "My head is spinning," she writes, and she doesn't mean that in a where's-the-bucket kind of way. "These were more than just mere 'demos' or 'experiences' – these were fully-fledged worlds where I could shoot, race, play and even die… I can't wait to play these games again, plus the hundreds more that will surely follow."

That's all very well, but what you all want to know is: can you play Star Wars? Yes! Yes, you can! Hugh Langley has been battling stormtroopers on the HTC Vive. The good news? It's awesome. The bad? It's just a demo. For the full Star Wars VR experience you might want to go for the PlayStation VR, which is getting a special version of Star Wars: Battlefront later this year.

There's another game everybody wants to play in VR, and that's Minecraft. We've seen it on Microsoft's Hololens, but now Microsoft is bringing it to the Gear VR as well as the Oculus Rift. If you thought your kids were addicted to Minecraft before, wait until they can strap it to their face.

Meanwhile, back in the real world…

GDC has more to offer than virtual reality, of course. In our round-up you'll discover why MSI's Vortex is a Mac Pro for gamers, how Microsoft plans to bring a tournament element to every Xbox One game, how AMD plans to power the ultimate gaming experiences, and why Razer's latest Blade might just be the future of 4K gaming laptops.

Windows and Xbox up a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G

Microsoft has been talking about universal apps for Windows and Xbox for a while, and now we've got the details: it's all about what Microsoft calls the Universal Windows Platform, or UWP for short. As Cameron Faulkner explains: "By breaking down barriers between PC and Xbox, then unifying the development process of games and apps across all Windows 10 devices, the idea is that developers will have an easier time giving their products exposure on the Windows Store… the first wave of UWP titles have launched (Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Gears of War: Ultimate Edition) already, and the second wave is coming soon, with Quantum Break and Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition leading the charge."

Sky's plans for UHD confirmed

Sky has been busy lately: not only is it rolling out its next-gen TV system, Sky Q, it's bringing UHD to the UK this summer, in time for the new Premier League season. The UHD service will be available on Sky Q, which is also getting voice control so you can properly shout at the football. There's a new Now TV box coming as well.

Totes Mazeballs

Remember the 1990s cult TV show The Crystal Maze? Thanks to production company Little Lion you can now clamber around the Crystal Dome yourself, and play some of the programmes' famous games. If you've ever wanted to build your own Crystal Dome, Paul Hirons found out exactly how it was done.

It's Pigeon Patrol!

TV and film companies looking for new kids' franchises need look no further than London, where a project called Pigeon Patrol is fighting pollution. Pigeons are fitted with pollution-sensing backpacks to measure the levels of nitrogen dioxide and ozone in the atmosphere, and if you send a tweet to @pigeonair you can discover the current air quality in your part of the capital. As David Nield explains, "It's the latest example of how small, low-powered sensors – and the mountains of data gathered from them – can be used to track everything from traffic patterns to air pollution levels."

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