Google: all you need for your own VR experience is … cardboard

Google have released their first foray in to the world of immersive VR. They’re calling it Cardboard, because the do-it-yourself headset is made of … well, cardboard.

“Construct a VR viewer from everyday items you can find in your garage, online or at your local hardware store,” is the headline on the Google Cardboard website, complete with a picture of the necessary components.

Build your own VR heaset from cardboard, magnifying lens and a few other bits, and use it with your Android smartphone
Google Cardboard: build your own VR headset from cardboard, magnifying lens and a few other bits, and use it with your Android smartphone

And before you laugh yourself silly thinking this is another little joke from those pranksers who brought us GMail Blue in April 2013, it’s not. The heart of the system is a VR App designed to run on smartphones which can be mounted into the home-made headset.

Cardboard was unveiled at the Google I/O Developers Conference in San Francisco. the app takes advantage of a smartphone’s built-in accelerometers and gyroscopes to provide head tracking, and demonstration environments include a Hall of Mirrors and the opportunity to travel through Chicago. Users can also watch YouTube videos as if sitting in a movie theatre and explore 360-degree panoramic photos or run a series of VR experiments using Google Chrome on their ‘phones.  There’s also a software development kit which allows users to code their own immersive experiences.

“David Coz and Damien Henry at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris built a cardboard smartphone housing to prototype VR experiences as part of a 20% project. The results elicited so many oohs and ahs that they inspired a larger group to work on an experimental SDK,” the website explains, providing the “why” of the effort.

The finsihed headset with 'phone mounted
The finished headset with ‘phone ready to be fitted

Nor is the headset entirely low-tech. Although a phone is almost completely encased in the headset, the instructions provide a guide to making a trigger with a metal ring and a magnet and which uses the ‘phone’s magnetometer. Flicking the ring downward as items come into view allows you to select them.

VR headsets for smartphones aren’t exactly a new idea. We’ve had Kickstarter campaigns for the likes of Altergaze, and there are items like Durovis Dive. But Google Cardboard offers fun approach to things – the company noting that it can be worn with glasses, but that “you may want to cut flaps into both sides of the viewer. There’s a fold line pre-cut into both sides of the viewer to make this easier.”

For those who don’t want to be bothered with gathering all the bits and cutting cardboard to create their own headset, and just want to put the thing together and start enjoying VR on their smartphone, a pre-cut kit with all the necessary parts can be purchased from Dodocase!

Now all we need is SL Go with the Oculus Rift viewer code 😉 .

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LL’s next generation platform and the mainstream market

There can be a broad gulf between niche and mainstream. Bridging it isn't easy
There can be a broad gulf between niche and mainstream. Bridging it isn’t easy

One of the aims the Lab has in developing a new virtual world(s) platform is that they hope to lift it into mainstream adoption, with not hundreds of thousands, but potentially hundreds of millions of users.

It’s a lofty goal, to be sure; but the Lab isn’t alone in talking in these terms. Brendan Iribe over at Oculus recently talked in terms of a virtual world / MMO (he seemed to be using the terms interchangeably) with a billion users – although granted, he also couched this in terms of being a decade or more away.

But how realistic is it for a virtual world to achieve figures of hundreds (or even tens) of millions of users? The gap between niche and mainstream isn’t an easy one to bridge. It’s fair to say that the Lab hasn’t managed it so far, although they’ve certainly had both opportunities and attempts at broadening their mainstream appeal in the past – which is not to say they yet can’t.

Bridging the gap involves dealing with a number of key issues. Three of these might be said to be relevance, identity and ease-of-use.

Loki Eliot's Main Stage, SL11B Community Celebration
Loki Eliot’s >stage desgin at the SL11B Community Celebration

If people don’t see a virtual world as having relevance in their lives and the things they do, then it’s going to be hard to persuaded them as to why they should consider using it. In this, it doesn’t matter how snazzy it looks or how clever the technology behind it.

This need for some real value proposition is perhaps most clearly exemplified by Pamela in the 8th segment of The Drax Files Radio Hour. She dismisses any involvement in a virtual world because she sees no advantage in it compared to what she can already do in her day-to-day physical life. Her reaction may have caused some of the mirth seen at the SVVR Creating the Virtual Metaverse panel, but it is one that is unlikely to be in the minority. Laughing such opinions off doesn’t actually make them go away.

Pamela’s comments also touch on the issue of identity.

Handling issues of identity for groups of people with very different views on the subject may not be easy
Handling issues of identity for groups of people with very different views on the subject may not be easy

For those of us engaged in Second Life, the ability to define our identity howsoever we wish by virtue of the anonymity we enjoy, is intensely liberating. We can be who we want to be and what we want to be; it gives us the willingness to express ourselves more openly and creatively.

However, as Roland Legrand points out when discussing the Lab’s new platform, for many people out in the mainstream world / market the Lab would like to reach, it is downright creepy and off-putting. They are intensely uncomfortable around the notion that the people they may meet in a place like SL may not be entirely as they present themselves.

How this might be dealt with in a manner which gives them the level of comfort they need while still allowing others complete freedom of anonymity, isn’t a straightforward matter. On the one hand, it must allow people to define themselves howsoever they wish; but on the other, it requires that the platform provide some form of assurance that the person with whom you’re interacting really is who they say they are.

And so to ease-of-use.

The new platform needs to provide an intuitive UI which presents itself as easy-to use and offers the greatest flexibility of use, be it with a keyboard and mouse, or an Oculus Rift and STEM system. It also needs convenience of use as well, if it’s going to be made available through mobile devices.

Allied to this is the need to ensure that incoming users are presented with compelling experiences which encourage their use of the platform, and increase their desire to explore it further. This includes ensuring those who come to it with an idea of what they want to do and what they are seeking can find it and similar-minded users quickly, while those who arrive out of curiosity are entertained and /or engaged.

Taken together, these three elements provide a substantial challenge to anyone attempting to drive a virtual world product into the mainstream market. So far, no-one has successfully managed to tackle all three with a single virtual world product and bridged the gap into mainstream acceptance, including Linden Lab. As such, it’ll be interesting to see if the Lab do indeed rise to the challenge, or whether they opt to channel their efforts in other ways, such as towards deeper penetration of vertical markets by offering multiple “worlds” via a single platform. That, however, may be the subject for another blog post.

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