Google Cardboard has, on more than one occasion, been referred to around this office as “the poor man’s virtual reality headset.” Of course, the PCMag office isn’t like other offices—we get to play with all the latest toys before the rest of y’all.
To be sure, Cardboard certainly comes off more low-rent than beefier VR options like Oculus Rift (though there are plenty of affordable non-pizza box incarnations available). But for those who don’t have access to the latest developers’ build of Oculus or Samsung’s Gear VR, let alone things like Microsoft’s new interactive 3D AR tech HoloLens, Google Cardboard is your best VR bet.
Using only your smartphone (either Apple or Android) and a simple headset, Cardboard has more than enough oomph to render a compelling virtual reality experience. And they’re affordable: most kits (like Dodocase, I Am Cardboard, or Knox Labs) cost less than $10. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, though, you can build one yourself from scratch (adding to its DIY, Michel Gondry-esque charm).
But considering that most people are still not that well acquainted with VR of any kind, just know this: It’s worlds beyond the virtual reality sets you may have been first introduced to in the video arcades and fair grounds of the 1990s.
As someone who has experienced many early VR technologies, I can honestly say that most people will find that Cardboard offers an experience on par with that of Oculus. And I’m not alone in that opinion.
While I’ve always believed Cardboard was a cool little platform, I wasn’t sure what exactly I was supposed to do with it—there simply wasn’t much content. There are only a dozen apps specifically made for Cardboard, but most feel like little more than demos or experiments.
But that’s beginning to change.
A recent New York Times article highlighted a new project bringing journalism to the virtual reality realm. Vice News and video directors Chris Milk and Spike Jonze created Millions March NYC 12.13.14, a short immersive documentary about the protests that erupted in NYC in the wake of the police killings in Ferguson and Staten Island. Regardless of your politics, this documentary is an exciting new exploration of the medium.
The documentary is making its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, but it’s also available via Chris Milk’s VRSE app for Cardboard (available on iOS and Android). (You don’t actually need Cardboard to take it in, but it provides a more future-y experience.) I should also note that the video you download through the app is huge, so make sure you have extra virtual space. One associated quibble is that the VRSE app does not provide an easy way to delete these huge files after you are finished with them.
But small UI issues aside, it’s easy to see the possibilities in this immersive form of storytelling. While you have the ability to concentrate your gaze anywhere throughout the short film, it’s easy to discern where the director would like your attention to be through the placement of the omni-capture camera and the sounds that are highlighted in the audio mix.
For example, in the first scene in Washington Square Park, the viewer is naturally drawn towards a group of loud protesters speaking, not to the camera, but to the surrounding crowd. Unlike a traditional 2D experience, you have the option to move your gaze to any of the nearby protesters and see their reaction. It’s a far more comprehensive picture than is available through any other medium.
Millions doesn’t only present a new mode of storytelling; it’s one of the first VR experiences I’ve had that actually felt like a finished product. Not to overstate it, but I had a similar reaction the first time I saw Avatar on the big screen—while I had seen 3D movies before, Avatar was the first time the new technology actually felt like it had a reason to be there.
In addition to Millions, director Milk has also released a VR documentary about a Syrian refugee camp called Clouds Over Sidra, which is available for free through the VRSE app. (Milk also has a non-documentary VR film available through the app called Evolution of Verse. It’s a short, surreal art film with a weird Kubrickian twist. It’s a beautiful ride.)
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While this content is available on Oculus, Google Cardboard gives everyone with a smartphone the ability to watch it right now—for cheap. Previously, I felt that Cardboard was a sort of stop-gap technology that Google plopped together so they didn’t get railroaded by other VR technologies. But I don’t think that anymore.
Cardboard is starting to feel like a legitimate platform that is worthy of our attention. Oculus will eventually make its way to the public, and surely it will have its adherents—particularly in the gaming world. But Cardboard’s price demands that it has a place at the VR table. Even if Samsung, Oculus, or anyone else are able to create a superior product, unless they can match the damn-near-nothing cost of Cardboard, Google’s entry will maintain a very convincing argument for market share.
After many false starts, I’m finally excited to see where VR is going. And for the first time, I’m starting to believe Cardboard will be part of that evolving story.
For more, see 8 Amazing Uses for VR Beyond Gaming in the slideshow above.