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VR the champions: Queen legend Brian May has made a rival to Google Cardboard

The rock god and astrophysicist has a long-standing fascination with 3D imagery, leading him to create the wallet-friendly Owl viewer.

Jordi Vidal, Redferns

If Brian May could capture one moment from his life so that others could step inside that moment and experience it, it would be the time he strode onto the roof of Buckingham Palace alone except for his guitar and played to 200 million people.

"I'd love people to know what that felt like," said the Queen guitarist. "It was a whole life-changing experience for me."

No-one but May will ever know what it was like to perform on the roof of 'er majesty's gaff for the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002. But the legendary guitarist is giving music lovers a chance to see what it's like to be part of a Queen show, thanks to virtual reality.

The band filmed its recent Barcelona concert with 360-degree cameras that zoomed around the gig on a four-point wire system suspended over the crowd -- the type of camera you've probably seen flying over arenas and sports fixtures. You'll be able to soak up the atmosphere, both on stage and from within the crowd, by watching the resulting VR experience through a wallet-friendly 3D and VR viewer developed by May himself, called the Owl.

"It was one of the best gigs we've ever done," May said of the Barcelona show -- although he also admitted, "I would hate anyone to have seen the previous night in Lisbon, because we were rough as hell."

You can also experience Queen's classic hit "Bohemian Rhapsody" in virtual reality thanks to an animated video made by Google, available now from Google Play.

I want it Owl

Like the make-it-yourself Google Cardboard viewer, the Owl viewer holds a smartphone in front of two lenses so when you look through it you can see glorious 3D, 360-degree and virtual-reality photos and videos. It will be available in mid-June for £25 from the London Stereoscopic Company, a concern backed by May (much to the bemusement of his accountant).

Unlike Google's Cardboard, Brian May's Owl viewer has open sides so you can reach in and easily tap on the screen of your phone. The bit that holds the phone slides in and out so you can move the screen closer to or further from your eyes in order to focus the 3D effect.

Richard Trenholm/CNET

May eagerly showed the new version of the Owl for smartphones to assembled journalists in London today. His signature curly mop now silver, May turned the Owl over in his hands and showed us how to fold it into place, like a kindly uncle showing a niece or nephew a favourite toy from his childhood. A scientist as well as a rock legend, he's endearingly fascinated by the phenomenon of stereopsis, by which our brains create the illusion of depth by combining the images from our two eyes. "We get two different views of the universe every second of our lives," he marvels.

V(R) will rock you

May happily digresses on the history of stereoscopy stretching back to the innovations of Sir Charles Wheatstone in the Victorian age. Today, he says, with the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive among the VR kit immersing people in three-dimensional virtual worlds, "We've come almost full circle. There's no better way to experience 3D than the Victorian way."

May is even more excited about the future. "It's a way of educating people like never before," he said. "You can put people in a situation they would never otherwise be in. You could be an astronaut flying in space." A prominent animal rights campaigner, May also suggested that "You can experience, for instance, being an animal, being hunted."

"I think ultimately virtual reality will change the world," said May, "because you'll be able to build exactly what you want and have everything in [the virtual world] that you love and cherish, and you will feel like you can touch and you can hear and you can interact with them."

Describing a VR project that he said had "cracked it", May mused that VR could advance to the point that "when you come out of it you feel a tug, a sort of nostalgia, a feeling that you've lost something because you fall in love with the world that you're in. And I think eventually people won't want to come out."

Hang on, what? "There will be good to it and there will be bad," argued May, when asked about the potential darker aspects of the technology. "We have to deal with the darkness."

Updated Wednesday 14 September to add details of the "Bohemian Rhapsody" VR app.

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