The tech world’s latest infatuation is virtual reality (VR), and this is given even greater importance with the arrival of Facebook’s Oculus Rift, and Microsoft’s upcoming HoloLens. If you are not content with the real world, then come this way ladies and gents, and step into a fantasy world instead.
These headsets come with a warning of dizziness, sickness and eye strain if you use them for too long. They’re also pretty expensive, and require powerful gaming PCs to run.
Fortunately, there is a less expensive alternative that works with your iPhone (and Android too). Meet Google Cardboard.
What Is Google Cardboard?
Cardboard is Google’s way of letting people play around with the concept of virtual reality, either for free, or for a measly couple of dollars. As the name implies, the virtual reality viewer is made out of cardboard, and the high tech part of the virtual reality is in your smartphone, which fits inside the cardboard construction.
Apps have been created, and Cardboard VR functionality has been inserted into Google products such as Street View and YouTube. Just start up the app, look through the viewer, and start moving your head around.
You can get the viewer directly from Google, if you’re willing to pay way over the odds for it. But you’re much better off looking on eBay where they can be bought for as little as $1. Google even allows you to download a kit so if you are creatively minded, you can use that to make your own viewer.
But really, just get one from eBay for a dollar, and save yourself the hassle. I personally got mine free as a special movie promotion at the local cinema. Sometimes Google holds events like these to get free Cardboard viewers out to people.
Assuming you have your viewer and an iPhone, let’s now take a look at some of the apps you can install on your smartphone. I am covering iOS here, but considering Google has their own smartphone OS, Android owners actually have a much better selection of apps to choose from. iPhone owners should note that you really need to be using at minimum an iPhone 5/5S to get these to work properly.
One other thing to note – the very nature of 3D virtual reality makes it extremely difficult to take screenshots that do the technology justice. What you actually see when you look through the viewer is both sides of the picture coming together to form one single image, so keep that in mind when looking at the screenshots below.
We start with the official Google Cardboard app, which gives you five different environments to play around with. This is designed as a proof of concept for Cardboard, and it’s a great place to start.
You can choose from Explorer, Exhibit, Urban Hike, Kaleidoscope, and Arctic Journey. Explorer is “exploring exciting environments“, Exhibit lets you view 3D objects in a museum collection, and the other three are pretty self-explanatory.
To choose an option, simply move the small white circle over the one you want, by turning your head left and right. Then hold the white circle on the option and eventually the screen will change. Touching the screen with your finger also does the same thing.
So maybe you want to see a museum?
Travel the world?
Visit a wolf?
Or simply look at some pretty colours?
Street View [No longer available]
This is another of Google’s attempts to integrate Cardboard into their products. Now you can look at Street View Images in 3D, and add an extra layer of realism to the whole thing. Why go on holiday when you can just sit in your house in your pants and look through a piece of cardboard? It’s the way of the future, man.
Install the Street View app, and choose a place (which is covered by Street View), then in the top-right hand corner you will see a Cardboard viewer logo. Click on that and you will instantly be taken to 3D mode.
If that wasn’t enough, Google now has Cardboard support for some YouTube videos. You just need to go to the specially-made playlists, choose one, slip the phone into the viewer, and off you go.
While the video is playing, make sure you are wearing earphones, the better they are, the better quality you will experience. You can look at them without the earphones but the audio won’t be as good. You can turn around in a 360 degree angle and see what’s happening in the video behind you. As a demo, go to the video embed above, and you will see the circle with the 4 arrows. Click on those to see what it would look like in your viewer.
In the future, I’m sure that Google will start implementing Cardboard support into more YouTube videos.
Vanguard V [No longer available]
Vanguard V is a good example of the games potential using virtual reality and Cardboard. Obviously, being a free game, you are not going to get mind-blowing special effects. Nevertheless, it is still an enjoyable way to pass 5 or 10 minutes. Vanguard V was made by a few Redditors who got together to design the app.
In Vanguard V you are the pilot of a spacecraft and humanity’s only chance from being completely extinguished. The “parasite menace” is coming to do the whole humanity extinguishy thing, and it’s your job to fly after it and get it first. As the iOS description page eloquently puts it :
“Fly in low orbit while re-entering the atmosphere, skim the waters of the ocean, dive into the tunnel from the initial impact and make your way to the center of the planet to exterminate the source of the parasite infestation. Lock on with your VR targeting system and blast through the alien threat!”
Just call me Buck Rogers!
Vrse [No longer available]
This is one of the highest-rated VR apps in the App Store. The consensus from reviewers is that up until then, most iOS Cardboard projects had been a bit cheesy. Vrse was seemingly the first app which showed iPhone users the true potential of cheap, smartphone-powered VR and what it could really accomplish.
Vrse is short for “Verse”, and the tagline is “Storytelling in Virtual Reality“. So this means that you can hear news-related stories, human interest stories, listen to U2, fly from a helicopter, and even watch Jerry Seinfeld do his skit on Saturday Night Live. Plus a lot more.
The app is regularly updated, so check it often to see what’s new.
Discovery VR has a huge number of interesting videos that work with your iPhone strapped to your face. From a ghost asylum, to a space satellite, to a wreck dive amongst sharks, the number of options here are huge, and it will take quite some time to get through them all. You can see world sights, travel on a fishing boat, and walk around with robots.
This VR app is made and curated by the New York Times, and brings some of their stories to life in short special reports. Newspapers are limited in what they can say and how they can say it in terms of immersing the user into the story. Virtual reality stretches those boundaries, and enables the viewer to experience the news, to feel like they are a part of it. And now I’ve realised I sound like a really irritating CNN promo.
NYT VR, for example, can put you on the campaign trails for the current US Presidential candidates. So you can listen to Ted Cruz make his stump speech, stand at a Bernie Sanders appearance, and be within spitting distance of Hillary as she dodges journalists questions.
Listen to the experiences of war refugees, follow artists as they record new music albums, and a lot more.
Now, this one I really liked! inVR is more of an “art” style virtual reality. Look at screenshot above — “Mystical Place” looks like something right out of a Walt Disney movie. The one I liked though was the roller coaster!
You can also choose from a few other experiences including “Happy Cartoon Village”, “Inception”, Underground Mines, a graveyard, and a tavern.
Vrideo [No longer available]
Vrideo is a fantastic VR app, but you need to be a little bit careful, because some of them are a little bit adult in nature (swimsuit models and so on). That makes up the minority of the content though, and the app is well worth a look: ride an obligatory roller-coaster, swim with sharks, drive Formula One racing cars, watch the Star Wars scrolling text in 3D, stand on a beach, and fly in a plane.
Call me easy to please if you want, but I like the colorful light shows. People with epilepsy should be cautious though and not watch these for too long. I had to limit myself to a few minutes.
This is a really weird one, but weird in a good way. You are a doctor and a brain specialist. The patient is suffering from severe depression, and it’s your job to go inside the patient’s head (as you do) and find the red brain neurons. The red ones are the evil ones causing the depression, and it’s your job to point to them with your head, and “zap” them. This will make them turn green, and hopefully the patient will have a miraculous recovery.
Although I liked the premise, and it was fun for a while, eventually it starts to get boring. Nevertheless, play it for a while. It feels really weird to imagine being inside someone’s brain.
RYOT [No longer available]
We end with an app called RYOT, which enjoys a favorable rating in the App Store and is made and curated by the Huffington Post. Like NYT VR, the RYOT app covers the news but in 3D. You can hear special reports, typically under 10 minutes, and listen to people talking as if you are sitting right next to them. One such example is Wilfredo the taxi driver (below), in a report about the final opening up of Cuba.
The only downside to RYOT is that they don’t have too much content at the moment, but hopefully that will all change in the future.
Are You a Virtual Reality Kind of Person?
It was back in 1994 when Michael Douglas showed us what VR was all about in “Disclosure“. But it is only now that things are really starting to take off in that direction. Personally I would have preferred that they fix the hoverboard issue and get that into mass production, before they started on VR. But I guess you can’t have everything you want in life.
Now that many of us have smartphones, Google Cardboard offers a sneak peak at the immersive world of VR using nothing but the technology we already own and a cheap viewer. It can’t compare to pricey alternatives like the Rift or Vive, but it’s a good start.
Have you tried Google Cardboard? Which apps do you recommend?