Hands on Cardboard virtual reality headset

BEN GRUBB
Last updated 15:38 27/06/2014
Ben Grubb
SOLID PRODUCT: Ben Grubb tests Google Cardboard, which connects to an Android phone to enable a virtual reality experience.

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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 US$350 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 virtual reality headset when you exclude the cost of your existing smartphone.

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

"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 giant 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 dirty, you can always order one for around $30 online from one of the many companies offering to build it for you. 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 blury 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 sees employees 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 that 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.

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So what does it do? Like any other virtual reality headset on the market, it brings the user into a 3D space.

But unlike other headsets, it doesn’t 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's placed into the cardboard.

It’s 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 may have been because the apps created for Cardboard thus far don't cause motion sickness. Others created by third parties may 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 only offers 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 very noticeable, but with the Galaxy S5 and Cardboard I didn’t even notice them, making for a really immersive experience.

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

There aren’t many third-party apps for Cardboard yet but it already 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 story-telling might occur with the Cardboard in the future.

To determine where you’re looking, the Cardboard uses the phone’s accelerometer. 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 with the incredible experience it gives.

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

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