Back in 2014, Google announced a new grassroots platform for DIY virtual reality viewing. They called it Cardboard, because the most important part of the process is the viewer, which is based on a design that Google created and now provides free to the public. In the spirit of DIY and grassroots development, the traditional material for this viewer is simply cardboard, hence, the name. In all honesty, while I was vaguely aware of the Cardboard project, I hadn’t actually delved into it; it was sort of one of those things I’d “get around to” when I had some spare time. Having nearly 30 years of experience in stereo photography, I should have known better.
This past New Year’s Eve, I was talking to my friend Lee, who is himself an amazing visual artist. I told Lee that he should check out this new Google Cardboard thing, because it looks pretty neat. Two days later, I got a message from Lee telling me he was at the local Wal-Mart, and he found a bunch of overstocked View-Master viewer kits that were Cardboard-compatible and they were marked half-price. He asked me if I wanted one, and I said, “Sure!” Thus began my addiction.
For the uninitiated, here’s how Cardboard works:
The first key component is the Cardboard (or Cardboard compatible) viewer. These are available from dozens of vendors, and range anywhere from $5 to $30, or more. The most basic viewer consists of a fold-up cardboard box with a cutout for your nose, and a bit of a hood to partially block ambient light. There are two plastic lenses that are inserted into the eye holes, and there is a magnet or a conductive lever that helps with navigation within the Cardboard app.
The other key component, actually the most important and most expensive component, is a smartphone. Both Android and iOS phones work, but you’ll need one that’s new enough to have the compass/gyro functions. Download the Google Cardboard app, and you’re ready to go. Your phone mounts inside the viewer, and once the app is launched, you’re ready for some fun virtual reality viewing on the cheap. What you’re going to see is stereoscopic, 360° imagery that feels very “immersive.” There is both still imagery and video imagery available, with more content being made available daily. If you have the latest Youtube app installed, there are dozens of videos that are now Cardboard-compatible.
One disclaimer, before the gamer folks jump all over me: This is by no means the best virtual reality viewing experience available today. Current systems such as Oculus Rift and Sony’s Playstation VR, among others, are much more immersive and sophisticated. But they are also much more expensive, because you’re buying into a whole VR system. The beauty of Google Cardboard is that the main investment is within the smartphone that you already own.
Back To the View-Master Connection…
So back in the fall of 2015, Mattel got on-board with Google Cardboard and offered a viewer system called View-Master VR. The supported content for the viewer comes in the form of “Experience Packs” that feature 360° images of exotic locations, cities, animals, outer space, and all those other exciting things we grew up enjoying with traditional View-Master viewers. While all that stuff is cool, I’m much more excited about the ongoing growth of what’s available in Google Cardboard. And what’s great about the View-Master viewer is that it’s 100% compatible with Google Cardboard, and it’s a really rugged plastic viewer. So now I have the Cadillac of viewers, for less than the cost of most Cardboard viewers that are actually made out of cardboard. (After Christmas, Wal-Mart cut the price of the View-Master VR from $30 to $15.)
The Real Reason Why I’m Hooked!
Just viewing stuff is pretty cool, but I’m a photographer, and I like to create. So imagine my excitement when just last month, Google offered another app, called Cardboard Camera. Using your smartphone’s camera, you can create your own 360° panoramics that actually get converted to 3-D. Now we’re talkin’! It’s not perfect; seams show up at the start-finish point, and the 3-D can get wonky, especially if there’s lots of movement in the scene, but it’s pretty cool to be able to take someone to the exact spot you were standing in that looked so gnarly when you were there. On top of that, as you capture the panoramic image, a snippet of audio is recorded at the same time, so the viewer can experience some of the sounds from the scene.
The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Cardboard
While primitive by current VR standards, it doesn’t look like Google plans to orphan this technology anytime soon. It is pretty well-established already, with an army of content creators quickly growing. As smartphone resolution continues to improve, so will the viewing experience. Now, admittedly, it won’t take long before I’m ready to move on from Cardboard Camera. You can’t edit the JPEG files it creates, and it doesn’t use all the features that are on my smartphone’s default camera. But just in the nick of time, there is Vuze. Shut up and take my money.