In her Aging With Geekitude series, self-professed “recovering technophobe” Erica Manfred writes about her adventures with technology and shares what she’s learned as she navigates the not-so-scary waters.
When a new technology starts being called by its acronym, you know its time has come. Such is the case for virtual reality, or VR. If you haven’t heard how it’s going to change our lives yet, you will soon.
Curious, I decided to see what all the fuss is about by trying Google’s cheapskate route to a VR experience. More on that in a few. First….
What is VR?
Virtual reality is a really cool concept that dates back decades to the early days of computer graphics, when it caught the imagination of sci-fi writers and filmmakers. Movies like “The Matrix” imagined virtual worlds that are so convincing, the characters don’t know if they’re real or not.
That’s the dream of virtual reality – to create computer-simulated, three-dimensional interactive worlds that make you feel as if you are actually living in them. Here’s how it works:
I have no doubt that watching TV in the future will involve having dinner with the virtual Kardashians or competing in the virtual Hunger Games.
The buzz about VR started to grow louder last year when developers of the first publicly available mobile virtual reality device, Oculus Rift, raised money on Kickstarter. Facebook bought the Oculus Rift technology, and the first consumer device – a VR headset – will be available in early 2016 for somewhere between $200 and $400.
My $25 Virtual Reality Experience
In case you don’t want to wait or spend upward of $200 to experience VR, Google has come up with a bargain version, Google Cardboard, which pairs a smartphone app with goggles. Yes, you read that right, cardboard virtual reality goggles available for $25 that you can assemble yourself. Google Cardboard goggles come with lenses and work with a smartphone app that projects a virtual reality video. The lenses translate that to a 3D image.
I decided to try them and find out what all this VR fuss is about.
Several companies make goggles for Google Cardboard; they range in price from about $20 to $35. I picked the classic I Am Cardboard goggles for $24.99. They arrived flatpacked, with perforations and really lame instructions.
My default reaction to having to assemble anything is panic. YouTube to the rescue! A girl with purple nail polish has taped a how-to video that makes assembly crystal clear. Watch it here.
So what does VR look like? Well, so far it’s not close to “The Matrix,” but it’s pretty cool. With a little poking and shaking because the magnet that attached to my Carboard viewer fell off, I was able to watch a VR video tour of the interior of the Palace at Versailles. As I turned my head, I could see the paintings and other detail on all four walls. When I looked up I saw the chandelier and when I looked down I saw the rugs. When I finally found and attached the magnet, I could click from one room to another. The images were grainy, but that was due to the crude Cardboard lenses. Rumor has it the Oculus Rift goggles will be visually a lot more impressive. You get what you pay for.
The biggest problem with virtual reality is that it makes some people dizzy and nauseous, a problem that developers are working on. Because I suffer from vertigo, I used my goggles while in a swivel chair, which helped. Instead of moving my head, I moved my entire body.
Besides the tour of Versailles, the Google Cardboard app includes other VR demos: a crude animated aerial tour of what looks like a Greek city, a badly drawn 3D cartoon and lots of kids’ games that require a controller. Here’s a roundup of the best according to PC Advisor.
One of the app’s selections is definitely worth watching: VRSE, or “Evolution of Verse” has some gorgeous scenery, with a simulation of birds whirling in the sky and a baby in the womb; the second, “New Wave,” displays a really innovative use of the technology – a dramatization of a boy and girl having a fight on a beach. Move your head to follow the characters as the girl gets angry, walks away from the boy into the water and then back to him for a kiss. In the near future, a virtual reality movie might look like this, making Oculus Rift interesting to grownups.
Meanwhile, if you if you want an adventure without actually going anywhere, get some Google Goggles and give VR a whirl.
If You Plan to Try This…
- You need a high end smartphone to actually use Google Cardboard. Without a fast processor, plenty of memory and a good display you won’t see anything much.
- If you have an iPhone here is some guidance.
- Don’t bother with the pre-assembled foam version of Google Cardboard – the lenses fell out
- Order the right size of Google Cardboard for your phone. I ordered the large size so that my large phone would fit inside the goggles; most are made for smaller phones.
To learn more about Google Cardboard, see apps and buy goggles, click here.
Update October 21, 2015: The New York Times and Google have announced a partnership that will distribute Google Cardboard VR sets to more than a million New York Times subscribers, allowing them to experience virtual reality news stories on a special NYT app launching November 5.