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Just add a smartphone: Google Cardboard headset revolutionises DIY virtual reality

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Ben Grubb

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Google Cardboard unveiled

Google developers demonstrate their new DIY virtual reality gadget.

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San Francisco: Meet Google Cardboard, a gadget made from materials worth about $30 that houses any modern Android smartphone to create a basic virtual-reality headset.

The invention – which has similar capabilities to the $US350 Facebook-owned Oculus Rift  – is truly amazing. It’s like putting a computer in front of your face and comes at a fraction of the cost of a traditional VR headset when you exclude the cost of your existing smartphone.

It’s a jaw-dropping experience. 

Australian Mark Pesce, one of the early pioneers of VR technology, said Cardboard was "very clever".

Cardboard connects to an Android phone to enable a virtual reality experience.

Cardboard connects to an Android phone to enable a virtual reality experience. Photo: Ben Grubb

"It's hilarious and wonderful and not very far from what folks were doing with homebrew virtual-reality 25 years ago," he told me.

The tech group has decided not to sell it at this stage, instead releasing instructions on how people can build it themselves.

If you want to cut down on costs, you can even make one with an old pizza box. But if you’re not keen on getting your hands greasy, you can always order one for around $30 online from one of the many companies offering to build it for you.

The Cardboard. Click for more photos

Hands on with Google Cardboard

Google cardboard is an inexpensive virtual reality viewer that makes use of a user's own Android phone. Photo: Ben Grubb

A number of the contraptions are also being sold on eBay by attendees of Google’s I/O developers’ conference, where the company handed out thousands of them for free.

Besides cardboard, you need lenses (to focus on your phone's screen as it's otherwise blurry when close to your eyes), magnets, Velcro, a rubber band, and an optional near-field communications (NFC) tag. A piece of elastic and some staples might also be worth investing in to make it stay on your head hands-free.

It was built by Google employees David Coz and Damien Henry at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris as part of the company's 20 per cent project time (which encourages employees to dedicate a fifth of their time to an idea they believe is worth pursuing).

Google said the results of their experiment elicited so many "oohs" and "ahs" internally it inspired a larger group of people to work on an experimental software development kit to enable third-party software developers to build their own virtual-reality apps.

So what does it do?

Like any other VR headset on the market, it brings the user into a 3D space.

Unlike other headsets, it does not require a desktop or laptop computer to be connected to it. Instead, all you need is an Android smartphone running an app called Cardboard that splits the screen into two images (one for each eye) to create the illusion of looking at a 3D environment once it is placed into the cardboard device.

It is a jaw-dropping experience, as demonstrated by a Google video of developers' reactions to using it at Google's I/O conference.

Having used Oculus Rift, I found Cardboard an almost identical experience. I'd go as far as saying the experience is actually as good, if not better. I also didn't feel sick when using it, but this might have been because the apps created for Cardboard thus far don't cause motion sickness. Others created by third parties might have this result, also known as the "simulator effect". 

While the Oculus offers a 110-degree field of view – the largest of any VR device – the Cardboard offers only about 90 degrees. But I didn't even notice the difference.

The latency – the time between an action being triggered and the response delivered on the phone's screen – is going to vary depending on what sort of smartphone you use. In my testing with a Samsung Galaxy S5 it coped fine.

Latency is important, as it can mean the difference between scoring a kill and losing the game, so for gamers Oculus is probably still the way to go. But as smartphones become more powerful, this will no doubt change.

The amount of pixels seen while using Cardboard also depends on the smartphone. In most instances, Cardboard is actually going to be better than the Oculus when it comes to resolution. When using the Oculus, its pixels are noticeable, but with the Galaxy S5 and Cardboard I did not even notice them, making for a really immersive experience.

And that's what Cardboard is all about: immersion.

There are not many third-party apps for Cardboard yet but already it demonstrates huge potential. Some of the highlights include a Google Earth app that allows you to fly through a random city, and a tour guide app that teleports you to an historic location and has a narrator describe what you are seeing.

A YouTube app places you in a dark room looking at a number of different YouTube videos; a Street View app lets you move your head from side to side as you travel through a city; and there's an app that demonstrates how storytelling might occur with the Cardboard in the future.

To determine where you're looking, the Cardboard uses the phone’s accelerometers and gyroscopes. To select, or click, something the magnet on the side of the Carboard interferes with your smartphone’s compass, which the Cardboard app is programmed to interpret as a user interaction. This does make you lose the use of your compass when using Cardboard, but it's not really necessary and you can gain it back when you take it out of the headset.

To exit any app and go back to the menu, the Cardboard simply needs to be turned on its side. And to scroll through apps, you just look left to right and hold still when you see the app you want to open. You then move the magnet down to select. 

Google has also left the back-facing camera on the smartphone uncovered, meaning hands could be used to manipulate virtual objects in the future.

Some reviews have said Cardboard isn’t an Oculus killer. I’d argue it could take a number of future sales away from the device thanks to the incredible experience it gives.

The writer travelled to Google I/O as a guest of Google

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32 comments so far

  • Thirty bucks for a piece of cardboard? Hahahahahahaha, got to hand it to them.

    Commenter
    singlemalt
    Date and time
    June 27, 2014, 2:38PM
    • It's the lenses that are the expensive bit.

      Commenter
      5318008
      Date and time
      June 27, 2014, 3:02PM
    • One way to look at it. But it isn't just a piece of cardboard is it? The Oculus rift is likely to cost much, much more for what is reportedly only a slightly better experience, this sounds sensible at least as a prototype.

      Commenter
      stevek
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 27, 2014, 3:35PM
    • @singlemalt. You dont have to buy it. Google has provided instructions on how you can make it at home yourself

      Commenter
      Dy4me
      Location
      Syd
      Date and time
      June 27, 2014, 3:39PM
  • Google is rapidly becoming a one-trick pony: search. Nothing else, everything else is the K-Mart of the cyber world: diabetic contact lenses, google glasses, now a virtual cardboard junk add-on to your phone.

    The whole thing can be written off is the pointless pursuits of fat and lazy googlelites who have nothing better than to come up with a weekly dose of cyber junk. Except you need to remind yourself that these people earn in the seven figures and this then starts to hurt.

    Commenter
    ejr1959
    Location
    Double Bay
    Date and time
    June 27, 2014, 2:45PM
    • You sound angry... Google must have done something bad to you or your cat...

      Commenter
      Pretzelnutz
      Date and time
      June 27, 2014, 4:02PM
    • Driverless cars, automated homes, modular phones (Project Ara), robotics, 1 gigabit fiber connections in several US cities. Some of the things Google is working on.

      I found that out through their so-called "one trick" - search.

      Commenter
      Steve T
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      June 27, 2014, 4:17PM
    • That's right, and the reason they earn six figures is because advertisers pay them.

      More way to deliver ads to the dum-dum-will-buy-anything sheep.

      Commenter
      sarajane
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      June 27, 2014, 4:27PM
    • what the?? Maps! Gmail and Drive are good too

      Commenter
      sammy
      Date and time
      June 29, 2014, 12:45AM
    • @sarahjane - I think you might be getting a bit confused there. Delivering ads just delivers ads to people. The "will-buy-anything-sheep" are the people who buy apple products..

      Commenter
      btg
      Date and time
      June 29, 2014, 7:10AM

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