We’ve all heard about the Oculus Rift; the headset that promises to truly deliver a full Virtual Reality experience, dropping the player into a computer-generated world and letting them experience the world first-hand.
The tech has garnered a lot of coverage in the industry over the last few years, including a great deal of discussion regarding the shipping of the pre-ordered hardware.
With big promise comes a big price tag: while the retail version is, as yet, unpriced, the development kit will set you back around $350. The technology behind the system means that cost is always going to be fairly high.
The thing is, though, experiencing bleeding-edge technology doesn’t always have to be eye-bleedingly expensive. Nothing illustrates this better right now than the Google Cardboard project from the eponymous Google.
The stated goal of the Cardboard project is brilliantly simple: ‘Experience virtual reality in a simple, fun, and affordable way’.
And boy does it deliver.
In a nutshell, Google Cardboard provides a template for how to make a fold-up VR headset that you then combine with a smartphone and an app to create a working VR headset. It’s really that simple.
Hardware wise, it’s as simple as could be (well, mostly).
The schematics require some cardboard (the kind you’d make a packing box from), a rubber band, two lenses, a neodymium magnet and a ceramic magnet and some Velcro strips and a little bit of time to cut them up and put them together. The whole process is very easy and quite satisfying to complete.
Wait, I hear you cry, who has a pair of lenses and magnets lying around?? Well, that’s true, they’re hardly the sort of thing most people would have just hanging about in their cupboard. However, a fair number of intrepid entrepreneurs have spotted this and have begun offering Google Cardboard starter kits on places like Ebay, which provide you with all the kit required, even with the cardboard pre-cut for you, at extremely low prices. I picked up a starter kit myself for the extremely reasonable price of £3.31.
What is especially noteworthy is the fact that this was cheaper than buying the magnets, lenses et al separately; a fact I discovered on after making a separate order for lenses!
Making the best of this situation, I endeavoured to make two Google Cardboard devices; one from the kit and one by myself from the Google schematics.
The pre-done kit was exceptionally easy, once I got my head around the slightly obtuse Google instructions, which are less than meticulous. The seller merely provided a copy of the google instructions on their listing, so I was mainly left to my own devices, but with a little trial and error I managed to get the thing put together.
As for my home-brew attempt, that was also successful, but did require the use of pen, scissors and craft knives, as well, I must admit, as a fair bit of sticky tape. The fallibility of human eyes and hands will always be trumped in the clinical manufacturing process by machines and I did little to disprove this; my creation ending up somewhat different from the display models. However, while it was certainly ramshackle, it also worked, which is a testament to the efficiency of the design.
One note, however: I found that once I had the apps working, I had to re-cut my eye-hole sections as the lenses were too far apart for my eyes, causing me to see the images in double-vision. As these are fixed size devices they’re set up to a common denomination for dimensions, meaning some people like me will need to customise some aspects.
Once I had two devices ready to run, I downloaded the native Cardboard app, as well as a few other third-party apps and gave them a go.
The Cardboard app serves, unsurprisingly, as a tech demo of the kit. It has a few different modes, including a tutorial that takes you through the process of acclimatising to the way the device works. It introduces the way the device tracks your head movement and mirrors it in the device’s view and how to utilise the magnets at the side (they act as a slider button to interact with in-game features). The rest of the modes are demonstrations of ways to utilise the technology, from a 3d model of some Aztec masks, to a section of Google Maps that you can walk around.
More impressive were the third-party apps. All that I downloaded were free and were basically virtual experiences, with minimal interaction. One was a 3d rollercoaster, while another was a pseudio-Jurrasic Park world where you walked around and encountered dinosaurs. There was also a haunted house horror app, which was pretty immersive.
The system basically uses the lenses to focus your eyes independently on two near-identical displays on the phone screen, to create the illusion of three dimensions. The magnets at the side of the unit utilise smartphones’ ability to detect magnetic fields to act as a button. Indeed, there are a number of games you can purchase to play with the system, including fairly basic first-person shooters.
The system is, obviously, in its infancy, so developer support is limited, as is the hardware behind it, as the smartphone can only handle so much; graphically. However, what is there is a fascinating insight into what is an exciting future development in the games industry. I took the device on a tour round our company and everyone, gamer or not, was intrigued once they got the headset on.
Oculus Rift is a sensation in the industry right now, but at a price that is prohibitive to all but the most affluent of enthusiasts right now. Google Cardboard, however, gives everyone the opportunity to experience virtual reality and, with it, a glimpse into part of the future of gaming.
It’s a real example of gaming innovation and at the cost of a few pounds, one that you really should take time to give a go.
Go on, have a look and pick one up, I guarantee you’ll get your £3’s worth.
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Paul Izod is a lifelong gamer. Since he was old enough to tap at his Dad's PC's keyboard he's been a gamer. Dedicated and often opinionated, you can be sure he'll always have something interesting to say about the subject at hand. Find him on Twitter at @PaulIzod or @FaultyPixelUK or email him at email@example.com