Last month I had the chance to check out Google Cardboard – an accessible form of virtual reality – for myself.
For those unaware, every summer at their annual product launch conference, Google I/O, Google brings out a few new surprises. This year, they unveiled a cheap, easy-to-assemble cardboard visor that transforms your smart phone into a virtual reality device. You can make it yourself (instructions online here), or can find a number of resellers selling the full ready-to-assemble kit on eBay for something like £10 ($20). The kit features some cardboard flaps (as expected), two little plastic lenses, and a magnet which they’ve cleverly managed to use as a switch by repurposing a sensor in the headphone jack.
The result makes you look dorky, but the experience is incredible (disclaimer: I have not yet tried any commercial headsets like Oculus Rift).
I loaded up a PhotoSphere from an anniversary trip I took to Sicily in October. I am transported to a large Greek ampitheater. I tilt my head up and find myself looking into the sky. I look right to see the sun setting. I turn around, and from the next room Min hears me shout “Whoooaaa!! THAT IS SO WEIRD.” I’m looking at myself. But it’s different than looking at myself in a picture. Everything is so immersive it’s like I’m actually sitting beside myself (and rather rudely, I might add, I’m not even making an attempt to talk to me).
The technology isn’t that complicated. My phone, which is about 3 inches from eyes, has a split screen. It is showing the same image in the left and right sides, but from a slightly different angle (the same way light hits each eyeball at a slightly different angle, giving us depth perception). The plastic lenses help to wrap the image around our field of vision. The accelerometers and gyroscopes in my phone make it possible to track my head movements.
Seeing the ampitheater through the Cardboard really put me back in the moment, which gave Min a bit of an idea. We’ve both been going through some serious nature withdrawal in London. We miss the trees, they help to keep us sane, and I mean that without too much hyperbole.
It’s easy enough to take photospheres so we brought our trusty android phones back to Vancouver over the Christmas break. On a hike at the Stawamus Chief I was able to capture an incredible picture with soaring trees all around us. Now that I’m back in London, whenever we want to escape the concrete jungle, we can put on the headset flip through our pictures, and if only briefly be transported back to the west coast.
If this is the direction virtual reality is headed, then I am excited to see where it goes. Yes, there are far better headsets on the market today, but Google has already seen distribution of more than 500k of these headsets. Putting novel technology in the hands of the masses creates enormous potential. Perhaps we’ll finally be able to move beyond Skype (and Google Hangout, FaceTime, etc.) for long-distance communication. We’ll be able to chat with friends and family at the same table, rather than staring at a screen and getting distracted by our favourite sites. Let’s see what happens.