Google Cardboard: A Guide to Getting Started in Virtual Reality

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A couple of weeks ago I was standing in front of a huge a house on a massive property, amazed at its grandeur. Turning around, there were immaculate rows of flowers glowing under the clear and sunny sky. It was a marvelous sight. But as I took a step towards the house in front of me to explore it more, I bumped (pretty hard) into my kitchen table.

Pretty quickly I had forgot I was viewing this place through my mobile phone held up to my face inside Google’s Cardboard headset—instead of actually being there. I was inside a virtual picture, essentially, which mirrored my real world movements. When I looked up, I saw the sky; when I turned around I saw what was behind me and all with a depth that clearly wasn’t real life, but convincing enough.

Virtual reality is a potentially giant area of technology, so far seen as a blackhole in terms of its scope and concept. We think we know what it could be, but right now most people haven’t experience it and have no reason to be excited or captured by its allure.

Getting Started

One of the reasons Google’s entry into virtual reality is so exciting is because it’s cheap—both in price and quality. Getting a headset with a screen built-in is extremely cost prohibitive and probably why most people haven’t been exposed to more virtual reality.

Google’s product is a free set of instructions for cutting up a piece of cardboard and folding it into boxy looking goggles that you hold up to your face. Cleverly the company uses the smartphone you already have in your pocket as the screen, which slides into the folded piece of cardboard. If you don’t want to make your own you can buy a pre-made cardboard VR headset between $12-$30—depending on the size and options it includes.

If you want to follow the instructions yourself you can do that on Google’s site, but be prepared to have a large piece of cardboard, rubber band, magnet, washer, velcro, and some DIY skills. Otherwise you can visit a few companies Google highlights that are selling pre-assembled kits. You can also find Google Cardboard kits on Amazon.

Cardboard headsets can use either an Android device or iPhone, but be prepared for more VR apps on Android.

Apps

There’s still no killer must have app yet for Google Cardboard’s VR, but there are some neat ones. There’s a lot of gimmicky types of apps which you might expect, but as with any new platform, it’s about figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

The first app you’ll want to download is Google’s Cardboard demo app. The official app is filled with seven different items including a tutorial, tour guide, Google Earth, and YouTube viewing. There’s also a kid-focused find-the-squirrel game and a way to view 360-degree Photo Sphere pictures you take.

The tour guide takes you to that large house I first mentioned. It’s an amazing example of the possibility of VR and getting to visit places you might not otherwise be able to. The problem with this specific demo is that it’s very limited. It’s confined to a few predetermined areas and you can’t explore beyond turning in a circle. That’s essentially how it is for all of the apps currently available with Cardboard.

Ever wanted to see Beatles’ member Paul McCartney in concert? Now you can. There are a few different concert apps which use VR to bring you right to the front of the crowd and put you in the middle of the action. Using headphones, it’s an easy experience to get lost in with sight and sound. Jack White also has a VR app that exposes a similar, “How did I get here,” kind of moment.

Among some of the more gimmicky apps are a bunch of roller coaster ones. There’s no particular one that stands out of the others, but most are free and worth trying once. The interesting part of the roller coaster apps is thinking about what else is possible.

In the future will you be able to visit a completely virtual theme park and walk around without dealing with the crowds? Will you be able to go on rides that just aren’t physically possible to build in the real world?

Volvo is leading the way using VR to market its vehicles. While Volvo’s driving experience app isn’t particularly impressive competitively speaking, it’s still neat. The app allows you to partially get the idea of what it’d be like to sit behind the wheel on a Volvo while it drives down the road.

Obviously you can’t get the feel of how the car handles, but it might be the difference between heading to the dealership for a further look and not going at all. It’s another app that sparks excitement over the future. Toyota has a VR app in the works as well, but it will be available for more advanced headsets.

Going Deeper in Virtual Reality

Google Cardboard isn’t the only VR trying to reach average consumers. One on the cutting edge is the Oculus Rift, a headset primarily designed for VR gaming. The company hasn’t actually released a consumer headset yet, but it has a developer version available for the people programing the games which costs $350.

One indicator that VR is starting to heat up is Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus last year, shocking most of the tech community. It’s anyone’s guess what the social media website ends up using VR for in the future.

If you visit Oculus’s website right now you’ll be greeted with a Samsung VR headset. Oculus is currently powering Samsung’s own effort to get into the virtual reality space. Samsung’s headset requires a Galaxy Note 4 mobile phone and costs $199. More significant is Samsung providing its own VR app store which will make sure there’s content to view on the headset.

As Google proved, it doesn’t matter what you actually use to enter into a virtual world—even a piece of cardboard will suffice—it mostly matter what kind of experience you have once you’re there. Just like Apple’s mobile app store was a game changer for the iPhone, VR apps will make or break the technology.

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