If you’ve been following the gaming industry as of late, you’ll know that virtual reality is about to become, well, a reality. The immense crowdfunding success of the Oculus Rift made people sit up and listen, and now some of the biggest names in video games are set to launch their own attempts at a similar product—PC giants Valve are thought to have some sort of VR project in development, and Sony’s Project Morpheus can’t be too far off a full reveal. Virtual reality was once little more than a neat concept for science fiction authors to play around with, but increasingly we’re seeing it become a very real proposition.
However, one stumbling block could be the cost of entry for the user. At present, only the Oculus Rift is really in the hands of its audience in any meaningful way, and even that is only available as a beta model intended for developers. For the most basic form of the device, Kickstarter backers were looking to pay $275 USD for their chance to be on the cutting edge of VR. Considering that you’ll need a high-spec PC to take advantage of the device, at present it’s quite an expensive thing to try out virtual reality for yourself. This is, undeniably, a huge problem. If the cost of entry is too high, then people won’t flock to VR and, as such, it will be more of a difficult proposition for developers to invest the funds in creating games that take advantage of the technology. If people don’t get on board quickly, then VR could quite easily end up being DOA. However, the promise that virtual reality holds with it might be too great of an opportunity for the industry to miss out on—and Google might have a solution to get the technology in the hands of users cheaply and effectively.
At their annual I/O conference this year, Google Cardboard was unveiled, a new way of getting virtual reality hardware into homes. The device uses readily available materials to create a robust headset that will allow users to get a taste of what VR has to offer. Attendees of the conference were given a kit which could be used to construct their own Cardboard, but the beauty of the device’s design is that the components are readily available such that users would likely be able to collect them up themselves quite easily. Google have come up with a ‘do-it-yourself’ solution to the problem of expensive virtual reality hardware, and while it can’t quite compete with something like the Oculus Rift, it’s certainly a decent bit of kit for someone who just wants a taste of what this new technology has to offer. Much of the device is made from cardboard (as you might expect), with other components being things like small patches of velcro, rubber bands and magnets. The one item that might be difficult to procure is the lenses necessary to make the whole thing work, but Google offer information about which are the best commercially available lenses to buy for the project.
At the moment, the winning component are replacement lenses for the Durovis OpenDive headset, but getting hold of these is rather difficult as a result of early adopters snapping up much of the stock available on Amazon web sites worldwide. However, as Google Cardboard begins to get more popular, the range of solutions available will no doubt grow wider. Once you have all the necessary components assembled, it’s a simple matter of putting the device together. This is no more difficult than a piece of flat-pack furniture from IKEA or something like a pinhole camera. If you’ve had any experience in the past of constructing something from cardboard then you’ll likely be fine, even with the lenses adding the need for a little bit of finesse at some points in the build. The assembled Google Cardboard isn’t the most attractive device to look at, but it has a certain rustic charm that serves to reinforce the satisfaction of having put together a cutting edge piece of technology for yourself. At the end of the process, you have a virtual reality headset that can just about hold its own alongside the more advanced devices on the marketplace. Again, Google are in no way offering this up as a competitor to something like the Oculus Rift, it’s more of a tool than anything else. There are plenty of small developers who simply can’t afford the financial investment it would take to buy several virtual reality headsets to help develop a VR program or game, but could certainly this sort of belt-and-braces alternative. These devs will no doubt make the best of the opportunity that Google have handed them, so the release of this product is an excellent move to try and cultivate a thriving scene around the burgeoning sphere of virtual reality.
Of course, that’s not to say that you have to be a developer to get anything out of Google Cardboard. There are plenty of people that simply want a sneak peek at VR before consumer products hit the market, and with all the major players being very cagey about the timelines that they are working on, it could be some time before a final version of a virtual reality device is available. As a stop-gap, Google Cardboard will do rather nicely, perhaps not being the sort of experience you’d shell out a huge amount of money on, but certainly being an enjoyable curiosity. If you’re interested in this sort of project or you’ve ever had the urge to build a bit of tech for yourself, this is a great start. However, if you are a developer then this opportunity might be very valuable in years to come. Virtual reality could well become a big deal in a great many walks of life over the next few years, so getting the chance to work on a bona fide VR headset and begin developing now is not something that you should let pass you by. For more information on Google Cardboard, as well as what you’ll need to start making your own device, look to its official page on the Google Developers website.