7 Things Learned from Google's Cardboard VR Experiment

By Norman Chan

It's like the infamous CES TV hat, but not crap.

After our initial hands-on with Google's Cardboard virtual reality kit, I spent a bunch more time last night going through the demo app and the Chrome experiments. There were a few demos we didn't get to try on camera, like the Windy Day interactive short film that was previously only available for the Moto X. And while it's obvious that Cardboard is not a direct competitor to the Oculus Rift, the VR experience it could provide is genuinely impressive, and even immersive. It's not the first VR goggle kit to be paired with a smartphone--FOV2GO is a notable project that's of the same design--but Google's Cardboard demos go a long way to making me believe that there may be something to sticking a smartphone to the back of a cheap VR goggle setup. It's definitely no TV hat, for sure.

Whether or not Google can get developers creating VR experiences for Cardboard and Android, the experiment revealed some interesting things about the potential of a mass-produced virtual reality solution. Here are seven VR takeaways from Google Cardboard derived from its differences with the Oculus Rift.

VR Headsets Can Be Cheap to Make

If anything, Google Cardboard brings more credibility to the rumor that Oculus is working with Samsung to create virtual reality goggle frames that can use Samsung Galaxy smartphones as the display. Cardboard's cheap construction belies its effectiveness--the secret sauce here is in the 40mm lenses and the brilliant magnet-based trigger button. Cardboard's creators designed the kit to work best with the Nexus 5, and it would be very easy for Samsung to design a cheap plastic headset that would be optimized for the Galaxy S5. Something to look out for in any future smartphone-based VR headset: IPD adjustments and a frame that can wrap around glasses. Some type of plastic or rubber eye guard could do the trick.

Smartphone Screens Are Not Currently Sufficient

The biggest problem with Google Cardboard is that the Nexus 5 is just not designed for low-latency VR. The LCD screen may be 1080p, but the pixel response time and refresh rate are reminiscent to that of the first Oculus Developer Kit. This is not that big of a problem when watching a YouTube video in the YouTube demo, but anything that facilitated fast head movement--like Google Earth and Street View--made me feel nauseous after 5 minutes. This is the biggest hurdle with Samsung's potential Oculus partnership--Oculus can only do so much with software tricks to minimize pixel smearing and judder with smartphone-based VR. The magic of the Oculus experience seems to be in the company's control of both their hardware and their software--even though I got the impression from my interview with them at E3 that they may have a broader vision for an Oculus-standard for VR.

Wireless VR is Liberating

Another important difference between Oculus and the Cardboard experience--Google's experiment is untethered. I used it sitting in a swiveling office chair at home, and also standing up in my living room. The ability to spin freely to view a full 360-degrees of a scene without worrying about getting tangled or feeling the tug of a USB cable was liberating. It made demos like the Google Earth flythrough that much more immersive. This is probably the biggest advantage of Cardboard over existing VR solutions that are tethered to a PC.

Self-Contained Hardware Can Work

In the same vein, Cardboard proves that self-contained VR hardware can definitely work. Weight distribution was a worry for me, with the smartphone being front-loaded. Google's lucky that the Nexus 5 is easily the lightest 1080p phone, but the whole system didn't feel too cumbersome or heavy. It's easy to imagine a VR system in the future where the screen is in the front while the battery and processor are wired to the back of a headset as counterweights.

View-Master Ergonomics Can Still Facilitate Presence

Cardboard isn't strapped to your head--you hold the lenses up to your face with your hands, like a View-Master toy. I was concerned that having to keep my arms up to hold Cardboard into place would ruin the VR experience, but found that I quickly forgot about the outside world once running demos like the YouTube player and Google Earth. Immersion--and some small degree of presence--is absolutely possible with a binocular-style experience. Flying over the virtual streets of Chicago in Google Earth is a ton of fun--my mind did half the work imagining being a superhero and weaving between skyscrapers. I could also envision VR demos that lean into the binocular grip being very immersive--think of an ARMA-style military combat simulator you play on your desktop PC where you could also pick up VR goggles on your desk to look through virtual binoculars.

Having a Camera on the Goggles is Useful

Positional tracking (ie. translation movement) isn't supported with Google Cardboard, but the project does something similar with the use of the Nexus 5's camera and a QR code. In the I/O seminar demo, Cardboard's creators were able to aim the goggles at the QR code to positionally track the marker, so you could manipulate your view of a 3D model with both head and object movements. It's combining augmented reality with virtual reality--something that we haven't seen before with the Oculus. And while a front-mounted camera is something that has been rumored for a future version of the Oculus, seeing the Cardboard demo makes me want it for the consumer release.

Cardboard is Sufficient Enough to Wow

Cardboard's short-term goal may not be actually bringing low-cost VR to the masses, but in raising awareness of VR. Oculus Rift development kits are still a rarity for most people, and a system like Cardboard could be used to demo the potential of VR to people who aren't interested in its gaming applications. I gave Cardboard to two people to try who've never used the Oculus, and both had immediate "wow" reactions to the demos (especially the Windy Day film). Even with its technical limitations, a system like Cardboard is sufficient to demo and accurately represent a basic VR experience. It's enough to get new users curious and to get their brain churning about computer interfaces they've never considered before. That can only be a good thing for the VR enthusiast community.

And once again, our first hands-on with the Google Cardboard kit (forgive us for fumbling around with the construction--I was really excited to get this):