updated 05:18 am EDT, Sun July 13, 2014
Google Cardboard offers an incredibly good VR experience
One of the highlights of the Google I/O developer event for 2014 was the debut of the experimental Google Cardboard project. With the dawn of mass market virtual reality finally upon us thanks to the arrival of the Oculus Rift (at least in early beta hardware form), Google Cardboard seems decidedly low-tech by comparison. Seemingly a little odd at first, the Cardboard premise is a simple one: bring a virtual reality experience to an even wide audience, on the cheap, to anyone who owns a relatively recent Android smartphone. Made from its namesake cardboard, could it possibly be any good?
Google Cardboard is yet another project to emerge from Google's brilliant 20% percent time program, where employees can work on personal projects that they are passionate about during office hours. In this instance, David Coz and Damien Henry from the Google Cultural Institute in Paris spent their time working together on developing a cardboard smartphone viewer housing. The response was so positive to their early work that they ended up taking the project to Mountain View where it was picked up by another team. The end result is what was unveiled at Google I/O, which also includes an experimental developer kit. Google is using the term 'experimental' for Cardboard, as it currently not fully resourced in the same way that its major releases are.
While Cardboard was issued for free to developers in attendance at Google I/O, Google has posted instructions on how users can make their own. Interestingly, and not surprisingly, a third-party industry has sprung up on the Internet selling equivalents from around $25 - not bad, especially compared to similar products on the market, and a far cry from the price of much more serious VR headsets like the Oculus Rift. A free Cardboard app has also been made available on the Google Play Store that gives users a real taste of a virtual reality experience. Content includes a set of gorgeous high-resolution 3D exhibits, a very clever guided virtual tour of the Palace of Versailles, and life-like 3D demos of Google Earth, Google Photosphere, and Google Street Vue.
Each of the Cardboard app experiences works exceptionally well, providing a surprisingly immersive viewing experience. One of the particularly cool features of the Cardboard app and Cardboard itself involves the use of your smartphone's magnetometers. A magnetic placed on the side of the inside of Cardboard works with an externally magnetically mounted ring that slides within a cardboard track. Moving this causes a change in the magnetic field allowing it to function as a 'select' switch - it is extremely clever, and a great way to take advantage of one of your smartphone's sensors that you typically wouldn't normally use a lot outside of navigational uses.
While we have yet to see any of the results from developers who have accessed the experimental Cardboard SDK, there are a few alternative VR experiences designed for different purposes that still provide a great VR experience on Cardboard and are worth investigating. One of these is Tuscany Dive, which is from the Oculus Rift developer SDK for the Durovis Dive. Like Cardboard, the Dive uses a smartphone to power its VR experience, so the demo also happens to work perfectly using Cardboard. It is an absolutely stunning VR experience, and while Cardboard may not be as comfortable as a purpose-made headset like the Durovis Dive, it is still an authentic experience and one that comes at very little cost. Another Durovis-tailored app worth a look is Dive City Coaster. It goes a long way to making a virtual rollercoaster experience a reality. My 8-year old son and 11-year old daughter absolutely loved it; my daughter screamed in delight as she raced around the VR rollercoaster track from the comfort of her bedroom.
Even though Google I/O was packed with announcements, including Android L, and Android Wear (which we recently went hands-on with), Cardboard is easily one of the most delightful, genuinely interesting and engaging new Google products to come out of the conference. Android L largely centers around a new look, while Android Wear doesn't really bring much new to the current state of smartwatches as wearables. Cardboard, on the other hand, opens up a whole new virtual world just by adding your smartphone to a cleverly designed, and highly accessible piece of do-it-yourself hardware. Google Cardboard is definitely worth checking out, if you haven't already.
By Sanjiv Sathiah
You can check out the full 40min developer session on Google Cardboard embedded below: