I’d read for years about Virtual Reality (VR) being a Next Big Thing and never understood what the fuss was all about.
The problem with understanding VR is that you really have to suck it and see: no two-dimensional representation on a screen or paper, or combination of words, can adequately describe a 3D experience whose seamless visuals are in front, behind, above and below you.
Now I have the poor man’s starter-kit: Google Cardboard. I am impressed and so are my granddaughters.
Only a few VR films/apps are available so far, though there’ll probably be a deluge by Christmas. But there are already some fun things in Google’s Play Store. There are a few things for Apple also – Google recently released an iOS version of its Cardboard app.
VR Rollercoaster is one from the Play Store. It’s pretty realistic, with sound as well as visuals, and viewers have been known to get ‘VR sickness’ – similar to motion sickness. Fortunately I wasn’t one of them, though I’m not sure how I would fare if I watched it standing up. I’ve found the best way to view VR is sitting on a swivelling office chair.
My granddaughters (aged 2 and 4) were engrossed with VR Rollercoaster. They didn’t utter a word during their experience and didn’t (or couldn’t?) respond when I asked what they were seeing. But they were strongly into it and certainly didn’t want to hand the viewer back. God knows what they thought they were seeing.
What is Google Cardboard? It’s a viewer made of corrugated cardboard with two lenses that look through to the back of the unit and convert side-by-side images playing on an inserted smartphone (Android or iPhone).
There are more sophisticated VR units that are much more expensive: NZ$300 and up. They are still very much in development – particularly at the software end of things. Better-known brands, all announced in 2014, include Oculus Rift (which has been bought by Facebook for US$2 billion), Samsung Gear and Sony Morpheus. These units are not widely available in New Zealand. Noel Leeming is about to stock the Samsung Gear.
At this stage you’d be better to save money and wet your feet with a Google Cardboard unit, which costs very little and ’aint all that bad. I wouldn’t buy an expensive headset until the technology has settled down and more software is available. Anyway, it seems programmers are most interested in Cardboard, though anything they produce should work with the other viewers.
YouTube recently decided to embrace VR and that could really accelerate its uptake.
Google developed the Cardboard kit and licenses its manufacture to third parties. Mine was from one of the few companies that would ship to New Zealand. It’s a German Zaak unit and cost me about NZ$24 including postage.
Before buying anything, I checked out a number of videos on YouTube. They included comparisons of Cardboard with Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear. The big boys were declared to be much better.
Last week, just before Cardboard arrived, I wore an Oculus Rift at the Air New Zealand 75 Years display at Te Papa. It was interesting, though I spent most of the short programme sussing out the hardware and deciding whether to wear my glasses with it. If Cardboard was going to be worse than this I wasn’t expecting much, but to my surprise, it was visually as good or better than the Air New Zealand show.
Google Cardboard doesn’t fit on my face when I’m wearing glasses, so I’m pleased that last year I had new lenses inserted in a cataract operation. Now I can see OK without glasses. Without that operation, Cardboard would be impossible for me. Oculus Rift wouldn’t be much better.
Both Oculus Rift and Cardboard suffered from pixelation. The Air New Zealand programme was actually worse than some programmes I’ve watched on Cardboard. These things are nowhere near as sharp as a modern television set and sometimes a little willing suspension of visual belief is in order. I can put up with it, but Liz can’t be bothered. Some, though not all of the 3D people and objects you encounter look like very slim cardboard cutouts – remember that effect on the View-Master stereo viewer?
I’ve since checked Cardboard’s availability at the Chinese mailorder giant, AliExpress. Units identical to mine start at only US$2.22, post-free to New Zealand. Rats – I paid through the nose!
In 2015, after years of promise but no mass availability, VR seems to be taking off, even if it’s still pretty basic and there’s not much software. But I see great possibilities ahead in all sorts of areas: games, travelogues, training, cultural displays (such as visiting the Colosseum and art galleries), urban development, real estate, crime shows – you name it.
At AliExpress prices there’s no excuse for not satisfying your curiousity.