Google has a new technologically developed aspect added to is genre. Google Expeditions, a Cardboard app that’s designed to take kids on a virtual-reality field trip to faraway places.
When Google announced a do-it-yourself virtual reality kit made of cardboard at its I/O developer conference this week, one of the first questions people asked was: Is this a big joke?
Was Google mocking VR and poking fun at Oculus, the VR goggle makers Facebook acquired for $2 billion? Or maybe the company was just pulling a gag on attendees, who were excited to get a free smartwatch in their conference goodie bag?
Turns out, Google is using cheap, corrugated paper to give virtual reality its neatest and most accessible tool for converting nonbelievers. While it’s no Oculus Rift headset, Google’s Cardboard initiative has a huge role to play in VR by putting it in the hands of anyone with $25 and a smartphone.
VR is supposed to change everything: film, gaming, communication, travel, education — even what we understand about sensory experience itself. Oculus is the once-scrappy outfit started by 21-year-old Palmer Luckey that was purchased by Mark Zuckerberg’s social network in March. Oculus, now flush with resources and the game industry’s finest minds, is the VR torchbearer, blazing a trail toward a bright future we’d thought only science fiction could provide.
But for most people, consumer VR is still a fringe technology. It’s a futurist’s fantasy easily caricatured, an activity we could see devolving into the kind of techno-dystopian world that we fear Facebook and the smartphone era has already begun creating. That’s a realm where people sit in the living room with computers strapped to their faces, ignoring each other and escaping even further from reality and face-to-face contact.
The crucial disparity between the critical reception of Oculus’ product and the public’s perception of VR is a problem. It arises from the fact that the technology, as it stands now, is firmly in the “you have to see it to believe it” camp of consumer electronics. Unless you’ve strapped an Oculus Rift or Sony’s Project Morpheus to your face — devices that quite literally change the world before your eyes — you’re not likely to think a high-fidelity VR headset is really a product category capable of changing industries.
Why? Well, most everyday technology users don’t frequent electronics trade shows or game developer conferences, where the Rift and Morpheus are trotted out and where attendees line up to give them a whirl. So while technologists believe in VR, our friends, family, and the folks freaked out by Google Glass, the company’s smart eyewear, aren’t going to have the opportunity to try out a modern-day VR experience until full-blown headsets arrive in the next year or so.
That’s where Google Cardboard, perhaps one of the most important, quirky, and ingenious advances in consumer VR since the Rift itself, comes in.
Announced as part of Google’s annual product giveaway at I/O, Cardboard is a meant to be a super-low-cost, crowdsourced toolkit anyone can build to run elementary VR experiences. Essentially, it’s a cardboard housing for a smartphone running Google’s Android mobile OS. You get a $10 lens kit, about $7 in off-the-shelf magnets, $3 worth of velcro, a rubber band, and an easily programmable $1.50 Near-Field Communication sticker tag for launching the companion mobile app automatically.
You can even cut the cardboard housing, the schematics for which are posted online (PDF), out of a pizza box.
The result is a low-key yet completely usable headset that’s good enough to hand to a stranger and have them experience a genuine VR revelation. In fact, countless people — at San Francisco’s Moscone Center and here, too, at CNET’s headquarters — who have never had the opportunity to try on a Rift have been holding up Cardboard’s goofy-looking smartphone mount and walking away thinking VR might not be so crazy after all.
They also say it may just be the coolest tech they’ve played with in a while.
Google’s Cardboard app, which is what plays on the phone screen while it sits in the cardboard casing, lets you cruise through a landscape or city street in Google Earth and watch YouTube videos in a virtual theater. Even wackier Web-based experiences — what Google is calling Chrome Experiments — let you play a simple coin-collecting game, visit the Great Barrier Reef in a helicopter, and ride a roller coaster. That only one of the more than a dozen apps you can access with Cardboard is game-related is a boon for VR too, proving that you can design worthwhile and interesting experiences in a first-person view.
The idea behind Cardboard isn’t to undermine the technical achievement and feasibility of professional-grade VR headsets, but rather to close the loop from the bottom up. Now, with Oculus and Cardboard, we have a full spectrum for VR, with both DIY and high-end hardware optimized for apps both large and small, serious and playful.
More than anything, Cardboard illustrates Google doing what it does best: handing everyday people the tools to build the kinds of experiences that larger companies, including itself, would otherwise never consider or have time for. It just so happens that in creating Cardboard, Google has designed the blueprints to a device that can convince the world that VR is mind-blowing, about to arrive, and about way more than just gaming.