Why Google Cardboard is actually a huge boost for virtual reality

Google Cardboard is one of the cheapest ways to experience virtual reality.

At this point, attendees of Google I/O eagerly anticipate the big “Oprah moment” at the end of each keynote address in which some digital goodies are revealed as giveaways for everyone in attendance. But the biggest “what the?” moment of the Google I/O 2014 keynote was the reveal of Cardboard, a virtual reality headset that is actually made of cardboard, as one of those gifts.

Yet Cardboard is no joke. It’s actually a full-fledged virtual reality delivery system based around an Android smartphone that just happens to be recyclable.

It has lenses similar to any of the other phone-based headsets on the market and even has a button in the form of a magnet on its side. At an I/O talk Thursday, Cardboard creator David Coz said Google chose to work with cardboard because it’s dead simple. The headset can be assembled in 30 seconds and modified with paper and scissors. It’s just a simple way to get the hardware component out to as many people as possible for $2 or less a unit.

Google Cardboard before assembly. Photo courtesy of Google.

Google Cardboard before assembly. Photo courtesy of Google.

Durability isn’t as important because Cardboard is not meant for everyone (though it is already usable enough for anyone that wants to give it a try). It’s for developers, who are going to help Google build its actual consumer virtual reality headset.

Expensive hardware is optional

A lot of headlines this week made Cardboard out to be some kind of slightly tongue-in-cheek response to Facebook’s Oculus Rift move, but until Google goes ahead with a much higher quality version that isn’t really the case. If Oculus is an Xbox One, Cardboard is Ouya, and that’s OK. Cardboard is a quick way to get a basic virtual reality experience without having to invest heavily in a top of the line system.

But the neat thing about virtual reality is you don’t need a super HD screen for it to work. Cardboard works in basically the same way as Oculus: It has two lenses that focus your gaze on two screens, showing minute changes in viewpoint within the same picture. Put together, they are more than enough to trick your brain into believing what you are seeing is actually surrounding you, though the lower resolution of the phone you pop into Cardboard is a much stronger reminder you are still a part of reality.

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The real genius of Cardboard is despite its bare-bones construction it still has a camera — the phone’s — opening up possibilities for augmented reality. It also has a button: A washer on the side of the headset can be pushed up and down to create changes in the magnet’s field, which affects the phone’s compass. The Android app that accompanies Cardboard treats that change in field as a click. Newer phones like the Nexus 4 and 5 have a type of compass that means you could make the magnet into a joystick and push it up, down, left or right to move within virtual reality.

It’s a brilliant way to add interactivity for a minuscule increase in cost. Even Oculus needs a peripheral before you can interact with your surroundings.

The software is what matters

No matter how great the hardware in a virtual reality headset is, it doesn’t matter unless there is good software to back it up. Tricking your brain into believing you are somewhere else doesn’t work if the picture isn’t exactly right.

While you can laugh at the fact that Cardboard is actually made of cardboard, its software is not flimsy at all. The app that comes with the headset is surprisingly mature. You can zoom around in Google Streetview, fly above the Matterhorn and view virtual renderings of cities. And Google is making it easy for anyone to add to what you can do by open sourcing the code in its developer kit.

The Matterhorn, as seen through Cardboard. Photo by Signe Brewster.

The Matterhorn, as seen through Cardboard. Photo by Signe Brewster.

The kit takes care of some of the trickiest parts of developing for virtual reality, including head tracking and modeling how the eye takes in a picture. It includes a simple way to alter any image so that it appears normal to the eye; stick any image into virtual reality unaltered, and objects on the edge will appear much larger than those in the center.

Virtual reality is a challenge for big companies

Facebook bought Oculus because it saw the huge appeal of the platform, and Oculus sold itself to Facebook because it saw that getting Rift ready for mass adoption would require lots and lots of money.

Modern virtual reality is still in its infancy, and it needs help from as many large companies as possible that are willing to push hard for its development.

David Coz and Boris Smus demonstrate Cardboard at Google I/O. Photo by Signe Brewster.

David Coz and Boris Smus demonstrate Cardboard at Google I/O. Photo by Signe Brewster.

Google has already put a lot of work into virtual and augmented reality on top of Cardboard. Its Project Tango phone senses its surroundings in 3D, and could be a powerful addition to a Cardboard headset. Its Advanced Technology and Projects group has also made short films that are essentially virtual reality; move your phone around and the screen changes as if it was a window into a world that surrounds you.

The developers that flock to develop for a platform made by a giant like Google will all learn the lessons set out by Cardboard’s clearly smart team. Many could take up the platform that might otherwise have never looked into virtual reality. And from there, they will be willing to spread to the smaller players or big competitors like Oculus.

Facebook has Oculus. Sony has Project Morpheus. Samsung is building its own headset. Google’s Cardboard is another sign that it’s worthwhile for everyone to take a crack at virtual reality, and that doesn’t just apply to gaming companies.

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