My favourite episode of classic sitcom, Red Dwarf, was ‘Better than Life’. 3 million years into deep space, the last human alive received some post that included the coolest in virtual reality games, ‘Better Than Life’. Donning the headsets transported Lister, Rimmer and the Cat into another world where they could indulge all their fantasies - with ensuing hilarity when Rimmer’s brain couldn't handle it and rebelled against him.
Some 27 years later, I got to experience virtual reality myself in the form of the Oculus Rift. Although we’re still some way off the capabilities imagined in Red Dwarf (and no sign of the groinal attachment), the development versions of the OR showcase what’s going to be coming to our homes over the next few years.
I declared it the next big thing, but like Arnold ‘Judas’ Rimmer, my brain isn't entirely on my side and the sensation of seasickness remains a concern moving forward.
There’s also a question of price. The kit itself is likely to cost North of £300 and you’ll need a decent PC to drive things along too. This is a lot of money for something you might decide you don’t like, or possibly something that won’t like you. Happily, if you have a smartphone a bit of cardboard, some scissors and a lot of patience, you can sample virtual reality for a lot less, courtesy of Google.
Created by two Google Engineers as a side project, you build your virtual reality headset out of a piece of cardboard (along with some simple lenses, a rubber band and a few other bits) with your smartphone, which you drop into place, providing all the necessary technology. The ‘Google Cardboard’ app splits your screen in two, one section for each eye and then compatible apps and games use the stereoscopic display technology to fool each eye into creating a 3D image when you don the headset.
If you don’t like the idea of making your own headset, they’re easily bought online and, although often somewhat expensive for what they are, still provide an affordable entrance into some surprisingly convincing virtual reality experiences.
I've suggested before that since smartphone screens moved beyond ‘HD’ quality, any improvement in resolution is rather pointless since the pixels are now invisible. However, once it has been strapped to your face, the difference becomes rather more obvious again.
I tried out a few simple demos to see whether different phones produced different results starting with ‘Tuscany Dive’. In this app you get to explore a rural house on top of a hill. It has big beautiful views across the seas from its cliff top gardens and was the first demo I’d played on Oculus Rift too.
Budget phones like the Motorola Moto G have a 720p screen - plenty sharp for a 5” phone, pixelated and blurry when centimetres from your eyes. Whilst the graphics suffer for the resolution, the Moto G was easily able to keep up in other respects. The picture updated smoothly as I wandered around and there didn't seem to be any major lag as I moved my head around.
Switching to the Samsung Galaxy Note 3’s larger screen showed real improvement. The 1080p screen meant the view was noticeably sharper and therefore more immersive. Individual pixels are visible this close up, but they didn't get in the way quite as much as with the Motorola. In fact, the current ‘DK2’ version of the Oculus Rift uses the exact same screen - but of course the lenses are of significantly better quality - so the general experience still doesn't quite compare.
If anyone has told you that your QHD screen toting Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is needlessly high resolution - stick it in a Google Cardboard headset and ask them again. For the dedicated VR headsets, I suspect the resolution will have to go still higher to banish the visible pixels for good, but we now have a lovely sharp image to go with those smooth animations.
This matters, because the more believable the image, the less likely my brain is to rebel against me and kick off the seasickness.
So what can you do with a Google Cardboard? Well, it’s still really about demos at the moment - a peek around the technological corner at what’s coming down the road. Developers aren’t yet allowed to charge for their cardboard apps, so they've of course held back a little and stuck to demos and limited experiences, but there are enough to keep you interested for a while including…
Dive City Coaster
Roller Coasters are very popular across all virtual reality platforms and I'm not surprised. Needing no input from the user, you can sit back and watch whilst the game gives you quite an exhilarating experience. It’s a strange sensation knowing that you’re sitting on your living room sofa, but also peering over the crest of a vertical drop. Strange and, if you’re me, vaguely sickening.
Wait! Don’t skip on! Fan of Mr McCartney or not, I’d urge you to give this one a look. 3D cameras were set up on stage at a massive gig and you get to stand next to Paul as he rocks out on the piano in front of an audience of thousands. Part way through, you’ll switch position to the front of the stage, where you can watch the band or look out across the sea of fans. This is a great demo that suggests that virtual reality’s future may lie in live events and movies as much as in games.
One thing Sisters demonstrates is that virtual reality is a great place to have your pants scared off. You start off in a spooky living room. It’s sparsely furnished, but there is a sofa next to you, facing a TV set. Behind you; a fireplace. On the fireplace are two dolls, one at each end. A crack of thunder and the lights go out! When they recover, the dolls are no longer on the fire place. Three minutes later, you’re glad the demo is over and wonder if you can go hide in the Tuscany House for a bit where the dolls can’t get you.
So is Google Cardboard worth a look? Well, for somewhere between £3 and £15, depending on where you look online - Google Cardboard can offer a very different way to play with your smartphone and hint at what virtual reality will do when the dedicated kit like Oculus Rift is ready for market. Given the big interest - Cardboard will likely remain a popular platform in its own right for some time and new apps keep appearing from the developers. I've not gone back to each app more than a couple of times, they are 5 minute experiences that grow tired quite quickly - however there’s always been something new to try when I've gone back to Google Play, so I can see me picking it up quite regularly in the future.
Google Cardboard is an inexpensive virtual reality headset that isn't better than life, but it is fun and the worst thing it will do to your brain is mild seasickness. Rimmer would have preferred that.
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