Technology

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual-reality experience.

Virtual reality is making a comeback. At least, the hype about virtual reality is making a comeback. Its resurgence has been fueled by Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR, which landed Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey on the cover of Wired. In the past year, companies such as Sony and Samsung have announced plans to develop virtual-reality gadgets of their own.

For all the hoopla, however, not one of those devices has a definite timetable for release. And when they do arrive, each is likely to cost more than $200.

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All of which is to say that the virtual-reality revolution may yet be a ways off—again. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a taste of it right now. In fact, there’s a virtual-reality viewer already on the market that’s fun and easy to use—and you can get a version of it for just $25. It’s called the DodoCase VR, and it’s about the most fun you can have with a smartphone, a Popsicle stick, and a cardboard box.

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DodoCase is not a high-tech consumer electronics company. It’s a San Francisco startup best known for making iPad cases. Thanks to Google, however, just about anyone can now build a simple contraption that turns your smartphone into a virtual-reality machine. At its annual developer conference in June, Google introduced an open-source blueprint for do-it-yourself VR viewers, called Google Cardboard. It sounded like a joke, but it isn’t. It’s ingenious.

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The idea behind Google Cardboard was that you don’t need a bunch of fancy technology to experience immersive, three-dimensional movies and games. All you really need is your smartphone, some cardboard, a pair of biconvex lenses, and some Velcro to hold it all together. With the right tools, you can build one from scratch at home.

But it’s a lot easier to buy a kit like the DodoCase VR, which is among the simplest and best designed of several third-party commercial Google Cardboard kits. (DodoCase co-founder and “Chief Dodo” Patrick Buckley is actually an MIT-trained mechanical engineer who worked as a scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory before he started making skeuomorphic iPad cases.) Other well-reviewed Cardboard implementations include kits from Knox Labs and I Am Cardboard.

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All you need to experience immersive, three-dimensional movies is your smartphone, some cardboard, a pair of biconvex lenses, and some Velcro to hold it all together.

Via Google Cardboard

Each comes with slightly different components—the Popsicle stick as a trigger button for games was DodoCase’s idea, not Google’s—but they all work in essentially the same way. You start by loading up one of several smartphone apps that’s optimized for virtual-reality viewers, like Asteroid VR and the Cardboard app for Android, or Dive City Rollercoaster and The Height for iOS. These apps split the phone’s screen into left and right halves to create the illusion of three-dimensionality and use the phone’s gyroscope and other sensors to track and respond to its movements.

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Then you insert the phone horizontally into the Cardboard viewer, whose lenses distort the screen so that it wraps around your field of vision. Hold the viewer up to your face, and you’ll find that you can explore the app’s virtual world by looking up, down, and from side to side. It’s this immersive effect that distinguishes “virtual reality” from plain old 3-D.

The apps, to be clear, are not exactly Bioshock Infinite. They’re more like demos than full-featured games. Dive City Rollercoaster—which is actually designed for a different VR viewer, the German-made Durovis Dive, but works surprisingly well on Cardboard—is not really interactive at all. Like the popular rollercoaster demo for the Oculus Rift, all you can do is look around at the track, the sky, and the scenery as it rushes by. 

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The Height is a little more interactive. You’re dropped into a maze surrounded by green walls and scaffolding, and you’re tasked with … well, getting somewhere, I suppose, without falling down an open shaft. A couple of colleagues who tried the game told me the speed of the motion made them dizzy, a complaint that has dogged virtual reality since the days of the Nintendo Virtual Boy.

You insert the phone horizontally into the Cardboard viewer, whose lenses distort the screen so that it wraps around your field of vision.

Via Google Cardboard

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But Cardboard is already better than Virtual Boy in several ways, because today’s smartphones are more powerful than the cutting-edge mobile gaming systems of 1995. For one thing, they have high-definition, full-color screens as opposed to an array of ghastly red LEDs. 

Do you look like an idiot holding a cardboard box up to your face and jerking your head around wildly? You do. That’s just part of the bargain with virtual reality at this point. On the plus side, in my experience, anyone watching this display will be less concerned with mocking you and more concerned with finding out what it is you’re so engrossed in and trying it for themselves. (And even if they are mocking you, you probably won’t notice them.)

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The simplicity of the games available for Cardboard—and even for Oculus Rift, for that matter—makes it clear that virtual-reality is still not quite ready to go mainstream. Developing immersive, three-dimensional worlds is clearly a lot more time- and resource-intensive than developing, say, Flappy Bird. In the short term, we’re likely to see VR used more for things like short films and historical set pieces than full-fledged games or movies. 

Yet for all those obstacles, VR already offers a wow factor that few other entertainment experiences can match. A simple rollercoaster demo on a smartphone viewed through a cardboard box makes you feel more like you’re there than a $100 million Hollywood blockbuster in 3-D iMax. The immediacy of VR gives it an advantage that Hollywood and the gaming industry are sure to capitalize on eventually. 

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DodoCase’s Buckley is the first to admit the Cardboard experience is something less than mind-blowing. “This thing’s not going to be a high-end gaming system,” he says. “But I think VR is on its way, really. This is the appetizer, and the entrée’s going to come later.”

You can order the DodoCase VR online on the DodoCase website, or as part of a package with the Virtual Reality Beginner’s Guide, a slim book that Buckley co-authored with TechCrunch writer Frederic Lardinois. You can also find several other versions of Cardboard, including I AM CARDBOARD, on Amazon and elsewhere.

Hold the viewer up to your face, and you’ll find that you can explore the app’s virtual world by looking up, down, and from side to side

Via Google Cardboard

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Today’s rudimentary VR headsets may be to virtual reality what archaic gizmos like the old-time movie viewer were to cinema. But for $25, it’s hard to be too disappointed. Buckley is convinced the low barrier to entry is exactly what’s needed to get the nascent virtual reality industry going. “I think it’s on its way, really. You get a million people buying a $25 gift for their nieces and nephews, and all of a sudden you have a large audience for these types of apps.”

Someday, he admits, consumers will graduate to bigger, more expensive VR systems that aren’t made of cardboard. For now, though, “people don’t even know they want virtual reality yet.”

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