The Google Cardboard Experience – DIY Virtual Reality?
Virtual insanity or little box of tricks?
The virtual reality we were promised in the 90s is finally set to arrive in 2015. The long-anticipated (Facebook-acquired) Oculus Rift is rumoured to be targeting a summer release, while Sony’s moodily-monikered Project Morpheus, and Microsoft’s ambitious Hololens headsets lurk on the horizon watchfully. If you have a Samsung Note 4 you can already transport yourself to a digital vista via the Samsung Gear VR, but at £240 it’s little more than an expensive and gimmicky plaything. The big question is whether any of these devices will amount to anything more?
Now you can get a taster for VR at a budget price, with Google Cardboard. Download an app and cobble together a DIY goggle-box from a few cheap materials and you’ve transformed your android device into a fully functioning virtual reality headset. So how effective is it, and what can we learn about the feasibility and application of VR?
I opted for a flat-pack kit (you can pick them up for a tenner) and while I wouldn’t exactly describe it as ‘easy assembly’, I eventually swore loud enough for my wife to put it together for me. After downloading the app it was time to slot in a Samsung S4 and Tron myself up. One thing: you don’t look cool wearing a Google Cardboard headset. You look like a pillock with a shoebox sellotaped to his face, and the edges cut into your skin like cheesewire.
The Google Cardboard app features a tutorial, a confusing animation involving a squirrel, and a short guided tour of the opulent Palace of Versaille. Of these, the latter was the most interesting. Once my eyes had uncrossed and adjusted to the picture (they would sporadically re-cross several times), the gardens and grand palace rooms appeared impressively crisp, and there was a great sense of perspective. Apart from a slight drift as you look around (a problem apparently unique to the S4) the results were much better than I was expecting. Sightseeing and virtual tourism will surely become a popular application of VR technology; the ability to truly comprehend the scale of faraway places and attractions offers a whole new dimension to the experience. You can also take a flying tour in Google Earth and access Street View, each with limited success.
There is already a wide selection of apps available for Cardboard, and soon I was on stage with Paul McCartney as he blasted through Live and Let Die in front of an arena-sized crowd. I was able to get up close and personal with Sir Paul’s wispy barnet as the breeze lifted it up like an unsecured thatch roof, and share a sideways glance with the drummer whilst pyrotechnics exploded around me. A diversionary three minutes of my life, but where live events will fit into VR technology I’m not sure.
More entertaining are the thrills and spills of the ‘ride’ apps. The first steep drop on Roller Coaster VR genuinely made me gasp and feel unbalanced, and you could imagine more intricately designed big dippers on expensive headsets being a whole heap of fun. Mercedes VR put me in the passenger seat for a lap of a race track while an excitable chap in the driving seat shouted things like ‘horsepower’ and ‘torque’. Fun, and without the downside of having to go for a pint with him afterwards.
Interactivity beyond the direction you point your face is limited, but there is a button on the side, and there are some attempts at games. Rocket Drop had me plummeting straight past yellow things I was supposed to not be plummeting past. ‘Look at your chest to boost’ it said. Have you tried looking at your own chest? It’s not that easy, especially with an egg carton full of phone strapped to your mush. Vanguard V propels you through an asteroid field as you jerk your neck around to try and avoid a collision. It’s immersive, but how much do you actually want to jerk your neck around during gameplay? For me, the answer is ‘not at all’.
There’s a ton of other stuff on Google's Play store with varying levels of merit – you can dive underwater, take a moonwalk, look at a horse (literally just look at a horse), and there are all the kinds of 3D panoramas and animated vistas that you’d expect from opportunistic app designers. After a couple of hours the cardboard was starting to disintegrate as quickly as my interest, but I’d certainly had my ten quid’s worth of fun.