I can remember my first encounter with virtual reality way back in the 90s. It was a curiosity more than anything else, something that was available at this one arcade/pizza place in the middle of town. You’d go in and there it would be, two giant platforms containing people with their heads strapped into oversized head gear. On the screens behind them you could see what they were seeing, a crude polygonal world inhabited by the other player and a pterodactyl. I didn’t really think much of it at the time, mostly since I couldn’t play it anywhere but there (and that was an hour drive away) but as I grew older I always wondered what had become of that technology. Today VR is on the cusp of becoming mainstream and it looks like Google wants to thrust it into the limelight.
Meet Google Cardboard, the ultra low cost virtual reality headset that Google gave out to every attendee at I/O this year. It’s an incredibly simple idea, using your smartphone’s screen and to send different images to your eyes. Indeed if you were so inclined a similar system could be used to turn any screen into a VR headset, although the lenses would need to be crafted for the right dimensions. With that in mind the range of handsets that Google Cardboard supports is a little limited, mostly to Google Nexus handsets and some of their closely related cousins, but I’m sure that future incarnations that support a wide range of devices won’t be too far off. Indeed if the idea has piqued your interest enough you can get an unofficial version of it for the low cost of $25, a bargain if you’re looking to dabble with VR.
Compared to the original OculusVR specs most smartphones are more than capable of driving Google Cardboard with an acceptable level of performance. My current phone, the Sony Xperia Z, has a full 1080p resolution and enough grunt to run some pretty decent 3D applications. That combined with the bevy of sensors that are in most modern smartphones make Google Cardboard a pretty brilliant little platform for testing out what you can do with VR. Of course that also means the experience you can get with this will vary wildly depending on what handset you have but for those looking for a cheap platform to validate ideas on it’s hard to argue against it.
Of course this begs the question as to what Google’s larger plan is for introducing this concept to the world. Ever since the breakaway success that was the OculusVR it’s been obvious that there’s consumer demand for VR and it only seems to be increasing as time goes on. However most applications are contained solely within the games industry with only a few interesting experiments (like Living with Lag) breaking outside that mould. There’s a ton of augmented reality applications on Android which could potentially benefit from widespread adoption of something like Cardboard, however beyond that I’m not so sure.
I think it’s probably a gamble on Google’s part as history has proven that throwing out a concept to the masses is a great way to root out innovative ideas. Google might not have any solid plans for developing VR of this nature themselves but the community that arises around the idea could prove a fruitful place for applications that no one has thought of before. I had already committed myself to a retail version of an Oculus when it came out however so whilst Cardboard might be a curiosity my heart is unfortunately promised to another.
You know what gets me excited? Projects like this one that break our usual paradigms, reshaping the way we think about a particular problem space:
Anyone who’s done some industrial design or materials science will tell you that strength is a relative thing. There’s a whole bunch of materials that are “stronger than steel” but that trait usually only applies to a particular trait that the supposed better material excels at. Cardboard, whilst not being able to boast anything strength gains over steel, has the rather awesome advantage of being cheap, light and almost limitlessly available. Constructing durable, reusable products out of it is something that I haven’t really seen done before and a cardboard bike shows that it can be a very capable material when you carefully engineer around its shortcomings.
Honestly when I first heard about this idea I was pretty sceptical. I figured that it was probably some kind of one off (which it is, currently) that wouldn’t work outside some very specific conditions. From the video though it’s quite clear that the bike is quite capable of replacing a regular fix speed bike without too many troubles. The next steps would be to include gears to make it a bit more usable, but for a first prototype of a production design its pretty spectacular.
The kicker of all this is just how cheap such bicycles could be. Whilst I doubt that the $90 price could be hit with all the work being done by hand I could very easily see something that’s being factory produced hitting that target. Gafni’s idea then that the bike would be “too cheap to steal” is an intriguing one as the black market for such an item would be incredibly low. I mean would by one second hand for $30 when the new one could be had for $60? I think not and crack fiends around the world aren’t going to work that hard to sell something like that when a GPS worth an order of magnitude more is just one window away.
Everything about this project is exciting to me. The radical use of materials, the incredible amount of engineering and the wider social impacts that such an invention could have. Should these eventually become available you can be assured that one will make it into my home, just because of the ideals it represents.