Google Cardboard and The Benefits of Mobile VR
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If you’re familiar with VR then you are no doubt aware of the unique fold-able headset from Google, but for those of you that are just arriving in to the land of virtual reality, and are wondering what it’s all about, here’s a little bit more about Google Cardboard, and the Mobile VR market in general.
Google Cardboard first came to be, as part of Google’s expansion in the VR market, and was born out of a 20% project. While the developing industry was announcing high spec, top of the line, science fiction style headsets, Google decided to announce a simple, DIY cardboard device. As you can imagine, it turned a few heads, some people assumed it must be some sort of joke, while others could instantly see the benefits of such an idea. The cardboard design is now on its second version, and some would argue that the cost effective, easily manufactured approach, is an integral part of the development of the mainstream virtual reality market.
So what exactly is Google Cardboard? well as the name suggests, it’s a cardboard, DIY design that folds out into a mount for a mobile phone. The cardboard casing uses a front panel to suspend the mobile device in front of two lenses, and is held together by Velcro straps attached to the top and sides of the device, the device is then used as a virtual reality viewer, using the phones processing power, and operating system, as the brains of the operation. The first design of Google Cardboard, announced at I/O 2014, used a magnetic button, as a means of interacting with the phone while it was suspended in the casing. The downside was that this input configuration wasn’t compatible with all mobile devices. This is predominantly due to the fact that this functionality required the presence of a compass sensor, and is no doubt why Google decided to make improvements in this area. In doing so, they have added a “conductive lever that triggers a touch event on the phone’s screen for better compatibility across devices”, which works much better as an input overall. The latest version of Google cardboard has also increased in size, and can now accommodate phones with screens of up to 150 mm (6 inches). Which is an expansion on the previous versions 140 mm (5.7 inches). As you’ve probably already concluded, a bigger screen will offer a larger field of view (FOV), which can add up to a more immersive experience. One of the reported downsides of the larger size, however, is an increase in ambient light bleed. Which means that there is a greater abundance of light creeping in from the outside world, which can itself, interfere with the immersion factor.
Google Cardboard doesn’t stand alone as a Virtual Reality device for mobile phones, other headsets that its important to mention are GearVR, and the ZeissOne. Gear VR is a much higher spec, and more robust, model of the same idea, and supports Samsung Galaxy Note 4 or Galaxy S6, which will depend on which version (of Gear VR) you choose. Gear VR also comes with a higher price tag to match its higher specs, you can find out more about it here.
The creation of Gear VR and Google cardboard gave birth to a vast array of predecessors, which are now represented in a market commonly referred to as Mobile VR, or, Smartphone VR. One of the biggest benefits for Google Cardboard is obviously its low manufacturing costs. The cheap, and relatively easy to obtain (or make) components, mean that the device is easily accessible all over the globe. Which will coincide with the increase in global market penetration of smartphone devices, as this article will touch on later. All of these devices work on the same principle, and are used as a medium to transfer the images on the screen of the smartphone, to the user’s eyes, using a method coined as stereoscopic imaging, or Stereopsis, which is defined as follows:
“Stereopsis (from the Greek στερεο- stereo- meaning “solid”, and ὄψις opsis, “appearance, sight”) is a term that is most often used to refer to the perception of depth and 3-dimensional structure, obtained on the basis of visual information deriving from two eyes by, individuals with normally developed binocular vision.” Cited
In the context of VR, it means that the screens display is split into two, in most cases vertically down the middle, allowing the images to be sent through both lenses, which in turn, through the use of Aspheric / Plano-Convex lenses, creates the perception of a three dimensional environment. The software for Mobile VR apps hijacks the smartphones gyroscopic technology, and uses it as an input for the device. This is what allows the user to look around the environment, and explore the Virtual Worlds. The gyroscopic tech is most commonly used for inputs such as shaking your phone to close an app, and so on.
“get the technology in the hands of the people that will change the world.“
The Mobile VR market, much like the VR market overall, will be driven, predominantly by the content creators. The more applications that are available for this platform, the more useful it becomes. Some practical applications of this technology can been seen in educational environments, where it can be a tool to demonstrate ideas, or take students on Virtual Field trips. This also happened to be one of Google’s first ports of call with the expedition project. The project aimed to get the technology “in the hands of the people that will change the world.” and it is reported about in greater detail in this report from Gizmag’s Will Shanklin. Another area of media that this technology will shine in, aside from the obvious applications of gaming, is journalism. The capacity that virtual reality has as a platform to reinforce a narrative, and create empathy in the mind of the viewer, is an idea that most people involved in Virtual Reality are fully on board with. Chris Milk, the guy behind some mind-bending virtual reality experiences, done a rather poignant Ted talk about this subject back in march. One of his projects focused on a young Syrian refugee, and put the user right there in front this young girl, as she tells her story. Chris Milk suggests that this platform can go above and beyond the threshold of other mediums, when it comes to captivating an audience.
The accessibility is really the key factor with Mobile VR as a platform. The market penetration of smartphones represents a very large amount of these devices in circulation. This, coupled with the rapid updates of handsets, in an ever evolving technology market, means that many second hand, and used items are also now in circulation. Writing from the U.K, a quick search on eBay, revealed that you can currently pick up an iPhone 5 for around £100.00 (approx $154.00 USD). Which is a handset that is capable of running a fair share of current mobile VR apps. This demonstrates a market where smartphone devices are at the most affordable, and are more readily available then they have ever been. This is something that is likely to continue in this direction, as long as new handsets are being created. So the current development we’ve seen of this vast array of Virtual Reality viewers, can only help to serve the wider VR market as a whole. As it removes the need for having a computer system capable of running an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, and allows pretty much anyone to jump straight in, and get a feel for VR.
For those of you that are tech-minded, or if you’re interested in making your own, Google have made the design open source, so you can see the full manufacturers design specs for the Google Cardboard Version 2 here.