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Google Cardboard: Virtual Reality Sets Sights on the Mainstream

Could a virtual-reality headset made of cardboard bring this geeky technology mainstream? Katie tries Google Cardboard and finds out.

Garrett Hubbard Studios for Re/code

If you’re steps from a speeding car, a fashion magazine photoshoot or a Paul McCartney concert, you know where you are, right?

Not if these experiences are happening while you’re wearing a virtual-reality headset. In that case, you’re experiencing these immersive sights and sounds right before your eyes.

But to the outside world, you’re just a person standing there with a gadget pressed up to her face.

Virtual reality, or VR, finds its most enthusiastic fans in gamers and techies with deep pockets. They squeal over news about headsets like Facebook’s Oculus Rift and Microsoft’s HoloLens. But VR models like these are heavy, geeky-looking and cost a lot — starting around $250 without accessories — and several of the headsets are still in developmental stages.

This week, I explored a more down-to-earth example of VR called Google Cardboard. It’s a virtual-reality headset for the rest of us. And it lets regular people have fun getting lost in a pretend world for a little while without plunking down a lot of money.

Cardboard, which was used in a demo at our recent Code/Media conference, was surprisingly fun to use. I tried it for virtual voyages like walking through rooms in the Palace of Versailles, and learning about planets while flying through outer space.

If Oculus is the flashy, attention-hogging Kim Kardashian of the virtual-reality glasses world, Cardboard is the understated, likeable Rachel McAdams.

On the downside, I got a little dizzy each time I used it, and navigation in some apps was a bit kludgy. Plus, VR apps are a drain on your smartphone battery.

Cardboard is designed to be used in short bursts, so doesn’t even have a strap to wear for long periods of time. Its viewing screen is your smartphone screen. Sound comes from the basic speakers built into your phone. And it works with Android phones running Android 4.1 (Jellybean) or later, and apps made for Cardboard. Apple’s iOS also works, but isn’t officially supported, so experiences can vary. Plus, there are over 250 Cardboard apps in the Google Play store, compared to the handful of iOS apps found in the App Store.

Garrett Hubbard Studios for Re/code

Rather than being made from high-end, high-price-tag materials, the Cardboard viewer is made from — you guessed it — brown, corrugated cardboard, plus a few things that you can pick up in any hardware store. The do-it-yourself crowd can follow online directions to make one. Complete kits, with assembly instructions written right on the cardboard, are sold for around $20 (like this one on Amazon).

Two Google engineers created this concept in their “20 Percent Time” — time that the company encourages employees to use for offbeat projects that interest them. (Gmail and AdSense are two other examples of ideas generated in 20 Percent Time.)

In real — not virtual — life, this looks like …

Before I start describing what it’s like to use Cardboard, let’s walk through the physical build of this thing. Google sent me kits that it uses as reference devices. These come with six numbered steps, so I followed each one, plugging the “1” piece into the “1” hole and so on until I was done. In a couple spots, I peeled off pre-configured stickers, attaching pieces of the viewer so they wouldn’t move. It took me about five minutes to assemble one viewer.

Garrett Hubbard Studios for Re/code
Garrett Hubbard Studios for Re/code

In the spot where you drop in your phone to work as your VR viewer, Cardboard has a near field communication sticker. When a phone with NFC is placed in this slot, this sticker recognizes it. A special tone chimes in the Cardboard app that you’re using, and the app automatically goes into viewer mode, showing two images in stereoscopic landscape view. The phone is held in place with Velcro tabs that come pre-attached to the cardboard.

As you look through your viewer, you can make selections by pulling down with a small, circular magnet near your left temple. It reminded me of the old View-Master’s way of progressing through slides.

Garrett Hubbard Studios for Re/code
Garrett Hubbard Studios for Re/code

Apps in action

One of my favorite Cardboard apps was Titans of Space by DrashVR. I set it to autopilot, which let me move my head to navigate or to select on-screen menu options by hovering a small, white circle over text and lingering there to select something.

While using this app, I got lost in my virtual Cardboard world, soaring through space as I listened to sober piano chords in the background. As I passed Cires, data points appeared on the screen to tell me it was the largest asteroid and one of our five dwarf planets. I also saw its size — 975 kilometers — and the monstrous planet Jupiter looming behind it at 142,984 kilometers.

People who are visual learners will really enjoy apps like these.

One scene from the Titans of Space virtual reality app for Cardboard.
One scene from the Titans of Space virtual reality app for Cardboard.

An app by Jaunt let me sit in on an Elle photo shoot, like a fly on the wall. I stood up (in real life) and turned so I could look 360 degrees around the virtual room. I saw everyone there, from the photographer to the poor guy whose job it was to wave paper at the model to create a windblown look to a few people who watched the shoot from a back corner of the room.

But after just a few minutes using Cardboard, I felt a little disoriented when I put down the virtual screen and looked back at my real-world view.

I also started noticing something funny: Since your eyes are trained on the screen for so long, you need a really clean phone screen to use Cardboard. On several occasions, I took my phone out again and cleaned off its screen because the dust and dirt were too visible to ignore.

Garrett Hubbard Studios for Re/code
Garrett Hubbard Studios for Re/code

One Android app that I tried — Nighttime Terror — didn’t work at all. Instead, it just showed me a black screen when I put it into my Cardboard viewer and held it up. I didn’t have another screen to choose for help, which was frustrating. I had to quit the app.

And don’t reach for Cardboard if you’re trying to save your smartphone battery. Though Google didn’t have specific data about Cardboard apps’ impact on battery life, virtual-reality apps tend to be graphically intensive, and will affect a smartphone’s battery life more than basic apps.

Looking ahead with Cardboard

For now, Cardboard doesn’t interact with physical things around you. But this is something that developers are exploring, including in areas like live music.

In addition to several companies that made basic Cardboard viewers, others are getting in on making physical gadgets to work with Cardboard. Mattel couldn’t help but revive its old View-Master, and the toy company will bring out a modern, Cardboard-compatible version for $30 this fall. LG created a plastic version of Google Cardboard and gave it away with its G3 smartphone.

The world of virtual reality is still pretty geeky, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Google Cardboard’s low price and playful apps bring VR a little closer to the mainstream, though it still has some work to do until it gets really popular.

For now, it’s just plain fun to get lost in a virtual world — without losing your shirt on the cost of an expensive VR headset.

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