Virtual Reality (VR) is enjoying something of a second life after the initial craze of the 90s – with powerful and compact technology more widely accessible and acceptable to a growing smartphone generation. Those taking the lead in commercial VR are companies such as Oculus Rift – acquired by Facebook recently for $2billion – and Sony, with Project Morpheus in development. Samsung is no VR slouch either, with Galaxy Gear VR for their new Galaxy Note 4 phone.
With shiny tech and plenty of hype about VR, it was with no small amount of curiosity that a handful of developers, staying late to watch Google I/O here at TAB HQ, encountered the mysterious item simply named ‘Google Cardboard’. It wasn’t until the following Monday that a bit of Googling revealed it to be something actually made from cardboard – and not some cool, clever code name for new tech.
VR enthusiasts at Google had, in fact, whipped up a cardboard, flatpack headset that worked with a smartphone to provide a cheap and fairly basic VR experience – and had given them away to attendees of Google I/O as a bonus. Lo-fi creds aside, it’s a pretty interesting idea: to take VR from the developmental and the high-end realms of big budget tech, and make it fun, simple and inexpensive.
Naturally, I just had to try it out.
So what does Google Cardboard do?
I briefly considered making one from odd bits of cardboard around the office after the designs had been made freely available after Google I/O. How hard could it really be? However, given the results other attempts had yielded according to online blogs, home made Cardboards were not…pretty. Luckily, fabricated Google Cardboard headsets were available from third party manufacturers for about £15.
A few weeks later, the Cardboard arrived from Dodocase, and people around the office were keen to give it a go. The favourites from Google’s demo app were:
- Google Earth – where TAB found itself on top of a mountain range.
- YouTube – incarnated in a virtual cinema.
- Photo Sphere – which only after discovering its compatibility with photos taken through Google Camera, became possibly the most promising application to encourage a wider user group to get a Cardboard. Through photospheres, I relived – not just flicked through – some of my friends holiday photos from that summer. Being able to stand on a hill top looking out over a Romanian valley, or standing in the courtyard of a palace in Budapest was, honestly, amazing. Even just a few photos from your last trip taken in Sphere format would make grabbing a Cardboard worth the money – the immersion is that good.
As far as Google Cardboard goes, its progress really depends on the progression of the mobile devices that power it.
While higher budget VR companies continue to develop more advanced movement tracking technologies (such as Oculus’s positional tracking camera for the DK2), the budget VR experience and the hardware that make it possible will always be secondary to what consumers really want from their phones – and more advanced motion tracking sensors are not topping that list. Yet.
For me, though, Google Cardboard does give pause for thought. Low-fi and easy to reproduce, Google Cardboard hints that in the future, as technology continues to converge and permeate every aspect of our day-to-day life, VR may well become just as commonplace and consumable as hands-free headsets, ubiquitous selfies and even smart watches.