Google Cardboard: Has VR finally entered the mainstream?

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Whilst 2016 has been for many a tough year, it has been an exciting one for Virtual Reality with better, more accessible technology being released with the support of some major games developers. The Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive both enjoyed a positive reception upon their release and a ripple of starry-eyed hope was felt across the gaming world, could this be the start of a new era in computing? Millions of childhood dreams of brave new worlds ripe for exploration by digital pioneers looked to be on the cusp of being realised. How much closer has this new generation of VR brought us?

Well, the first thing to consider is how accessible these devices are. As covered in my previous review of the Vive, VR needs above average hardware to run. The Oculus Rift has had its tech requirements eased off by some clever trickery called motion interpolation but ultimately you still need a dedicated gaming machine to run it regardless. This is no less true for the Vive and even the Playstation VR requires an additional camera as well as the (more expensive) PS4 Pro being the recommended machine to run it on, rather than the standard PS4.

So for now if you want to use VR you need a setup of some calibre. Cost is a considerable issue too with the units mentioned retailing from $400-$800, not including the machine needed to power them. Clearly not yet a casual investment and devices have seen lukewarm returns so far. GamesIndustry.biz recently reported a revision in 2016 sales forecasts for the PSVR, seeing a drop from 2.6 million to fewer than 750,000 units. This is a not insignificant overestimate, regardless of the reasons for the miscalculation. The general picture shows some confusion from developers regarding exactly what hardware to code for and from customers regarding what exact hardware they will need before investing.

It’s not all doom and gloom however as Steam’s December hardware survey shows that the number of users with a VR headset amounts to around 0.38% of their total user base. At first this may seem shockingly low but there are two key points to consider. Firstly that Steam announced they had around 125 million users at the beginning of 2015 and secondly that neither the Rift nor the Vive have been out for a year yet. This means that in only a few months around half a million units have been shifted. Not bad for an expensive device with high hardware requirements.

People are excited about VR and are willing to buy in to it, despite the high cost and hardware requirements. The interest is there but until VR manufacturers can present a clear, distinct package I feel the sales will continue to disappoint. That being said, there is perhaps a cap on how popular it can be. Cost and hardware requirements will both go down in time but can they drop enough to facilitate a significant market share?

Fear not, for it seems a new player has entered the game, one who at first glimpse underwhelms and appears woefully outgunned but don’t let that fool you. Our young hero Link fit the same description when confronted by Ganondorf. Cringe worthy metaphors aside, it may yet be the underdog which takes the prize as Google Cardboard sets to redefine VR.

Google Cardboard comes at VR from a different angle than the current headsets. Rather than tethering itself to a powerful base unit, the Cardboard is a standalone, wireless headset. As the name suggests it is made of simple cardboard, easily assembled at home, and is powered by your own smartphone. Yes, you read that correctly. Most of us already carry in our pockets a powerful computer with multiple cameras and gyroscopic sensors. The Cardboard is deceptively simple, compatible apps split the display in to two images (one for each eye) which are then converted in to a single stereoscopic image by the lenses in the headset. Anyone who has played Pokémon Go will know that your phone is capable of processing Augmented Reality and in essence the Cardboard just simplifies the process and straps itself to your head.

Retailing at around $15, this is massively cheaper than its competitors and does not require the user to purchase any additional equipment or hardware. By utilising a device already widespread, this method of creating VR is immediately accessible and sidesteps many of the hurdles facing dedicated VR devices. I was quite surprised by the quality of the experience, it is of course less powerful graphically and the image size is smaller and so less immersive but by and large it’s all there. Cheap and easy VR without the uncertainty from developers and users.  Already over 5 million units have been sold and it’s easy to see this really booming.

Gaming aside, there is real potential with this style of VR to contribute to the way we experience the arts. VR cinema becomes much easier to produce and distribute for example. The device is simultaneously capable of VR and AR so museums and galleries can easily avail themselves of this technology to expand the visitors experience and give added value at a comparatively low cost. Again I have mentioned this before but AR has real potential to add depth to live theatre productions, something which is well facilitated by Google Cardboard.

The full immersion offered by something like the Vive cannot be replicated, and I am still hugely excited by the prospect of Bethesda creating an open world RPG for that platform. However in terms of bringing this new technology in to the mainstream, it seems Google are yet again at the helm. The simplicity of this approach allows developers and users alike to easily engage in a simpler, more accessible medium for VR and so presents itself as a more likely agent for cultural impact as a whole. This does not sound the death knell for high end VR but instead marks the first fork in the road in a journey many people have waited a long time to undertake.