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Me, hanging out with a VR alien

If you’ve known me in person for any amount of time, you have likely heard me raving about how exciting Virtual Reality is. I can’t stop myself from dreaming about the possibilities, from first-person flight sims to third-person adventure games, VR looks poised to shake up the industry in many great ways.

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Bending over to inspect a miniature village in a Rift demo

I have had a few opportunities to use the Rift and Vive available at SAE during Open Days and some of my classes. I’ve played with Tilt Brush on the Vive, and run through some canned demos and a little of Lucky’s Tale with the Rift, and I’ve played with the Leap Motion. There’s something truly unique about what Virtual Reality offers, the sense of presence can be utterly mind-blowing. For once, we can physically observe environments in three dimensions and sit amongst the action with our avatars.

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One of my favourite VR experiences, Tilt Brush using the HTC Vive

Being the poor student I am, I’ve not been able to own an Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or Gear VR, nor the PC to run the former two. I own a PS4, but PSVR looks to be out of my price range for a while. That leaves my only avenue to stretch my Virtual Reality itch: Google Cardboard. Google Cardboard is Google’s entry into the VR scene, and it’s more of a cheap demonstration than a serious market-shaker.

Device setup

Setting up Google Cardboard is moderately simple. All you need is a high-end phone (I own a Nexus 6P) running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean or higher, and a viewer. Viewers are available for as little as $15 at http://g.co/cardboard, or you can purchase a viewer online or make one yourself (which might get complicated). I bought my viewer from eBay, for around $5, but there’s a variety of Cardboard viewers which offer varying materials, construction and comfort levels at varying prices.

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Me, hanging out with a VR alien

When you receive your viewer, it will come in a bag with the following:

  • The cardboard skeleton
  • Two convex lenses
  • Velcro
  • Two magnets
  • A rubber band

Screenshot_20160902-091950Assembling the viewer is a little complicated. Google doesn’t seem to offer comprehensive instructions on their website, so instead you’ll have to browse online for instructions.

I found the instructions themselves a little unintuitive. The Google Cardboard app will request a QR code to set up the cardboard, but my online-bought custom cardboard didn’t come with one. Further, in my case, the “Cardboard Trigger” – a button which is your only interaction with Cardboard apps (besides looking) – is actually the magnet setup that doubles to hold the skeleton device together. The Trigger is especially confusing because, without instructions to tell me that my viewer came with a trigger, I had no idea that I had that feature. If you choose to purchase a viewer, I’d recommend you get one from Google’s own storefront and pay the minor premium. For whatever reason, my Nexus 6P didn’t support the Trigger, but my old Nexus 5 did. I did all of my testing using pure sight controls but I did experiment with the trigger functionality in a few apps.

Hardware Experience

When you do get Cardboard up and running, it’s about as comfortable as you’d imagine. You’re holding a cardboard contraption up to your face looking through two lenses at your phone. As far as hardware features go, it’s very minimalist, and any adjustments are on you to modify your setup.

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Me, hanging out with a VR alien

In my experience, the lenses Cardboard ships with are “good enough” for imitating a proper VR headset. Particular to my headset, I found that the centre of each lens blurred the image, whereas the area 1cm outward focused correctly. Lens discrepancies might occur from headset to headset, and you’re without any warranty options or contingency in these circumstances, something that comes with the minimal cost.

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Application performance is purely dependent on your mobile device. My Nexus 6P has a Snapdragon 810 eight-core SoC (four low-power cores, four high-power cores) which features an Adreno 430 GPU and powers a 1440 by 2160 AMOLED display. As far as phones go, the 6P is top-end and has only heating issues to speak of.

However, even the 6P isn’t ideal for VR. The high-resolution display surpasses that of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, which means that it isn’t powerful enough to keep a sustained 60FPS experience. The 810’s thermal management sometimes leads to throttling after long periods of play, contributing to the 6P’s lacklustre VR performance. However, even if the 6P could match its 60Hz refresh rate, it’s limited by the reality that 60hz is not ideal for a VR display.

Both the HTC Vive and Oculus use 90Hz panels, which greatly reduces the perception of lag and improves latency. While 60Hz looks smooth as butter on a phone arms-length away, it looks rather laggy when strapped to your face. When you do find a 60Hz experience for Cardboard, it just doesn’t feel responsive.

Lastly, Cardboard only supports three dimensions of rotation tracking and no positional tracking. Naturally, this is a technological limitation that the Oculus and Vive have already solved with external camera setups, so the Cardboard lives without. The absence of positional tracking doesn’t necessarily remove anything from the experience, but it does remove that extra level of immersion you find when you literally bend over to smell the roses.

Software Experience

Cardboard has a variety of Virtual Reality experiences available on the Google Play Store. You can find apps within the Cardboard App too, which houses the VR demonstration and 360-degree video apps. Because there are so few input methods available for cardboard, many of the following apps don’t seem to reach their potential.

Cardboard VR demos

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The Cardboard’s demonstration menu

Google’s own demo is the most beautiful, but notably bereft of user interaction. You drop into the demo in a valley overlooking the ocean, in a beautiful polygon visual aesthetic. You can interact with a menu of which you can choose to go to a Tutorial, Tour, Exhibit, My Videos, Photospheres or Arctic Journey. The most notable example is Arctic Journey, a full-on demonstration of what VR can do. Split into 7(?) parts; Arctic Journey demonstrates VR’s ability to embed users in environments and feel like you’re an observer in the world. My favourite demonstration is the Create chapter, where you target the ground and press the trigger to spawn plants in the world. Create is all about that feeling of Zen, like you’re somewhere else; there’s something about growing plants with my eyes makes me so relaxed.

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The first stage of the Arctic demonstration

Lamper VR

An entertaining game by Archiact Interactive Ltd, Lamper VR is a “VR endless runner” game where you play as a bee buzzing through endless tunnels, avoiding obstacles and collecting candy. Lamper VR can be controlled purely by sight alone; you change the bee’s position by tilting your vision along the X and Y axis. As far as VR games go, it’s minimalist and easy to enjoy while nesting some caveats. For one, users (like myself) might find it disorientating and nauseating to be floating so quickly through these tunnels as a disembodied head behind the bee. Secondly, the camera moves when your head only tilts, and turning your head 180 degrees will move and rotate the camera around to the other side, which while your body is still stationary will likely make you very dizzy.

Wizard Academy VR

Wizard Academy is another simple VR game by Realiteer Corp. In Wizard Academy VR, you play as a wizard learning the ropes. Wizard Academy VR can be played with a variety of control schemes, and innovatively uses the accelerometer to walk by bobbing your head (or by walking on the spot). You aim and shoot by pointing your head. While interesting, the game still falls under the same issues that affect the other Cardboard experiences – the performance isn’t comfortable enough and the limited control scheme makes it hard to naturally and comfortably play the game.

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VR Experiences

The Play Store has a number of VR experience to give you a taste of what VR can do:

Tuscany Drive

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Tuscany Drive is a VR experience that puts you out the front of a beautiful lakeside house. By looking at your feet, you toggle “walking” and walk about the observe the environment. There is nothing to interact with in this demo, and as such is purely an “experience” rather than a game.

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Street View

Street View features a collection of Photospheres (Google’s spherical photography feature) in which you can strap on a VR headset and observe. It’s quite an inoffensive use of VR to place users in a scene, but there’s no depth perception beyond the “sphere” so users that want some greater depth perception can find it in the Google Earth VR component of the Cardboard Demos.

It’s worth noting that transferring to VR mode on my Nexus 6P put the display into a low-motion-blur mode, using backlight flickering. I haven’t been able to turn this feature off, because it is very painful to look at and is prone to causing headaches and eyestrain.

Overall Thoughts

Overall, Google Cardboard can’t hold a candle to the VR juggernauts Oculus and HTC & Valve. With its limited hardware, mixed performance and lack of “must have” VR experiences, Cardboard is likely to give first-time users a poor first impression on VR overall.

But Cardboard still brings the fundamentals to the table. Objects have proximity; some experiences make me feel entirely nested in their worlds. It’s such a shame that Cardboard has so little to bring it up to spec with the rest of the industry.

The Future

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Google is acutely aware that Cardboard isn’t a competitor for VR. At Google I/O 2016 they unveiled their next generation Android Virtual Reality platform Daydream. Daydream will arrive on new mobile hardware in Spring and bring with it an entirely new platform for getting and interacting with VR content. Daydream introduces a new controller, similar to the Wii Remote, which enables more nuanced and natural interaction with games and applications. Daydream-ready phones will also address my core concerns of Cardboard, in particular, the lack of sustained performance and capable display technology.

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Daydream’s Virtual Reality home screen

I’m excited to see how Daydream impacts the future of VR for both phones and computers. While not everybody has a VR-capable computer, people might soon have VR capable carrier-subsidised smartphones. Soon, hundreds and thousands of people might have an entry-point into VR, and find a variety of thoughtful, entertaining content at its heart.

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