Monday, June 8, 2015

Google Cardboard convinced me about Virtual Reality

Virtual reality made cheap

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Google made a big deal when they announced a slightly modified version of Cardboard during Google I/O this year. Alongside that, they also introduced two pilot program (JUMP and Expeditions) which are designed to bring virtual reality to the masses. With that said, I got myself an unofficial Cardboard VR headset online for about $5 and somehow I started to believe in Virtual Reality.

From the start, I never quite understood why Virtual Reality was the future of computing/gaming. Basically, when it comes to VR, my knowledge of it is that Oculus is the best solution out there and it'll cost around $1500 to get a rig capable to power the pixels inside the headset. Companies like HTC and Samsung has started investing their time into creating VR headsets but my concern towards the platform is still there. I'll explain what I mean about this later on in the article.

Google Cardboard

It all started last year during Google I/O where attendees were each given a ultra-low-cost virtual reality headset made out of cardboard. I guess that Google's initial intention for this project was to show how affordable this platform is. Soon enough, after 1 year, Google revealed that there is now over 1 million Google Cardboard headsets out there and the spark of creativity from developers and also the Maker community has induced their interest to continue on.

First off, Google Cardboard is indeed made out of cardboard and in fact, you can build it yourself with some leftover cardboard with the provided schematics from Google. But what makes it special is not the two convex lens which magnifies the image on screen, it's the overall experience which combines the Cardboard compatible app with the headset that creates that 'wow' factor.
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Setting it up was quite a simple affair, tearing off the cardboard packaging reveals a unbuilt view of the headset. The lenses and magnets on my unit came pre-attached and all I had to do is roll it up into a rectangle and adhere the ends with the included double sided tape and the headset is complete. There is also a rubber band which wraps around the long end of the headset to make sure everything stays in place.

The last thing to do before diving into the virtual world of Cardboard apps is to first download any Cardboard compatible app and drop your phone on to the front of the headset and secure your phone with the velcro strips. I would highly recommend you to run the official Cardboard app as it does have a tutorial on how to communicate with the apps and the app also serves as a launchpad for all your installed Cardboard apps.

How does it work

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Probably the first thing that comes to mind when you talk about Google Cardboard is how does it actually work and how did Google make it so affordable. From my not so wide knowledge of VR, Cardboard is delving on the core aspects of Virtual Reality which is the lens which magnifies the two separate views from the display on the front of the headset. That is the general idea of how the headsets make things look 3D.

This is why all the headsets have that similar rectangular design and if you're wondering why is there the need for two separate images on screen? The concept of this is identical to that off our eyes which are indeed separated in between our noses and our brain combines what our eyes see into one image. When this comes in play, the two images presented on screen are then overlapped by our eyes and soon enough you will be immersed in the virtual world.

As to controlling the application when it is in the headset, Google thought of this ingenious way of using the magnetic fields to control the screen. This does require a device which has a compass sensor built in and pulling down the magnet on the side creates a negative magnetic field and thus triggering the buttons on screen. However, in the second revision of Google Cardboard, the magnetic switch has been replaced in favor of a physical button. But the use of magnets is quite cool.

" It's basically just double width corrugated cardboard

Do note that when you first view the image inside the headset, you might be seeing it as separate images but just hang on a little while as your brain starts to interpret the images. Check out the images below to see what I'm talking about. Basically what i'm showing here is that the pair of convex lens will magnify the image on screen giving you that surreal 3D look.
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google-cardboard-headset-convex-lens-android-malaysia

Conclusion

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This is my first experience with Virtual Reality and it'll definitely not be the last one. Who would've thought that a little cardboard can create a virtual world full of surprises. But despite that, Virtual Reality isn't perfect and one of my concerns towards it is motion sickness. Yes it will happen.

I did indeed feel a little light on the head when using Cardboard for an extended period of time especially with games which requires constant motion. For frequent games, this isn't much of a problem but for the everyday user like me you're gonna notice it. One way another, this was one of the reservations I have about VR.

When i first put on the headset to try out the Cardboard Demo app i was saying to myself, this is ok, nothing too special but when i fired the Google Earth Demo. It was that Wow moment and my mouth was wide open while swiftly panning my head around to see the surrounding scenery. Then i gave the headset to a few others and they gave me that same reaction.

As for raw performance, i did feel a little choppy and stuttering animations here and there with the Galaxy S3 but with a better device, the experience should be richer.

" Like all tech products, the novelty quickly wears off

But despite that, i am quite impressed with the games available in the Play Store particularly this Flappy Bird -esque game which requires you to hoop through as many pipes. I was also hitching on to this 3D space roller coaster adventure which was quite an experience with the app swooshing through planets and satellites. I didn't try out a lot of apps but these two are enough to convince me what the VR experience is all about.

Overall, the surreal 3D VR feel is there and now i'm hungry to try out higher end solutions like Samsung's Gear VR and the ultimate Oculus Rift. When some company finally creates a VR experience that continues on with real world motions then I'll definitely be sold on the concept of virtualizing computing. But overall, the $5 price for Google Cardboard is an eye opening experience and pair it up with an immersive roller coaster space adventure and you'll get the person wearing it give you that mouth opening look.


Insider talk (out of topic)

Things under this mini-section will vary from related to completely unrelated. So, I'll give it a try and see how this goes, do give me some feedback on this new segment. Also, I'm not assuring that this will be included in every article but I'll try my best to if the feedback is positive.

I was supposedly going to write and publish this article last Friday when i first received the headset but the laziness in me decided to act otherwise and i only started writing on this just before the Apple event started. Having some thoughts on what to write about WWDC. Too much WWDC wrapup articles around so i don't think i'll be venturing that this year. I will post an article focusing on Apple Music soon or maybe when i get to actually try it on June 30.

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