I tested Google cardboard VR: Good, but…

Launched in 2014, Google Cardboard is a newcomer after heavy duty VR sets like Oculus Rift, Samsung VR, Microsoft Hololens and others. For its introduction to the Virtual Reality arena, Google choose a flexible and affordable solution. Since, Google released a more refined version called « Tech C1-Glass » and partnered with Mattel, Homido, landberg, Dodocase, Powis Custom… to register more sets in its shop. Cardboard model is also freely available to create DIY models at home, provided you have the correct lenses, a few scratch, elastics.

Google Cardboard is quite literally made of cardboard, with a simple folding system to encase your phone and two lenses. So the philosophy is to provide a way to let the user’s phone doing the hard work, provided the OS is recent enough and the Google Cardboard App has been installed via Android’s Google Play manager.
I ordered and received for 20 € a Cardboard since a week now, and let friends and relations try it and have some idea of VR. The verdict ?
It’s fine for an introduction to VR.

The only problem here are the limitations of my hardware: A four years old Samsung S4. It is relatively large, but the screen’s resolution definitely limits the image finesse (huge pixels), and the CPU was not meant for that. After 30 min. of use (more would not be wise), the device is hot enough to fry eggs and the battery loss is about 80%. It’s a far cry from the experience on a proper VR device, but the important point is despite these hardware limitations it left me hungry for more. So, here are some tips to use the Cardboard.

-How to install it:
When out of the box, the installation is so simple there it only needs a simple 3-steps drawing. The device needs to be folded in place in order to create the « helmet », the phone is placed with its back on the plastic cover which provides some grip, its side resting on the first fold (the space between the two defines the phone width), screen turned towards the lenses.

-How to use it:
To have a best image (not blurred), the center of the phone needs to be perfectly aligned on the center’s cardboard « visor » which can be aligned on the binocular image when launching a VR app. If not properly aligned, the image would be blurred and fatigue will occur soon. I personally glued to small cardboard guides each side of the plastic grip cover to help center my phone. When placed just fold the cover over the phone, secured with a scratch on top of the « helmet ».
Despite it’s crudeness, the phone is given also a right-side button, essential to go through some interactivity.

1-First things first, before launching yourself on Youtube and checking for some VR-compatible movies, or download any VR app, download and install Google’s native app. This is basically a demo showing some possibilities of VR and is tailored for Cardboard (so phone-friendly).

In effect, the demo shows a basic menu on a warm, friendy, low-poly cartoonish environment which will not take a huge strain on your CPU. The first thing you’ll see is the 360° transparent menu. Provided you’re on the right position to see it. Important note here: These apps use your own gyroscope system, you don’t have to activate your GPS positioning or mobile data. You don’t even needs an internet connection (4G or wifi) as long as you don’t use the most impressive feature of this app: Google Earth.

Why Google Earth on VR is the real killer
There are a few demos in the cardboard app: There is a « tour » including the full demo (basic use and view, educational demo, mini-game), a virtual visit of Versailles, an exhibition of 3d African-style masks. But Google earth really storms it. You could do the app tour in just 5 min. but spend hours on end on Google Earth, given its potential. Beware, though: It’s still in beta mode. That implies it’s a bit rough on the edges: No indications whatsoever of any cities, landmarks, frontiers, roads or anything and no search engine. As it is for a demo, it allows you to venture between four nice landmarks: Chicago, Zermatt in Swiss Alps, Marseilles in France, and the Grand Canyon (Bryce). If you already know Google Earth, that’s a whole new experience in 3D, given many cities buildings are now rendered in 3D with relatively HD skins. I can read for example the latest shows’s billboards on some building’s facades, see the most intricate roof’s details, etc. Seeing the relief and being able to literally fly between skyscrapers in the most natural manner is a real treat.
Its use is relatively simple: Once you’re in (generally started with Bryce canyon by default) you have to access to space to switch destinations, just by looking upwards and clicking. There you are literally floating in space, with earth under you. You have all four destinations when turning, but you can also either take an orbital trip by clicking, and just lower your head to your destination for diving -quite literally diving- to it, from space down to street level !… You can also fly over the landscape and change your altitude by pitching upwards, which also includes speeding up, down, you’re slowing. It’s well-though but there are erratic bug though.

For all its niceties and because it’s a demo, Google Earth in VR is not perfect, though.
-Navigation of course is limited by the absence of any landmark, but you can make it gamy, trying to dive on a brighter spot (that cities generally shows on the green landscape), or having a « pre-flight » check of your destinations on the regular desktop Google Earth.
-Although useful, the « fly to space » can be annoying if you’re too low, stuck and needs to regain altitude, by not seeing it and clicking you generally leave your hard-found destination and end in space.
-Can’t save the destinations you found
-Not all cities are treated in 3d or Hi-Res
-Completely depends on your bandywidth, having it slow can ruin your experience or force you to wait idle for rendering
-On the long run, can make you ill if your hardware resolution is poor, not perfectly aligned…

Some useful Cardboard Apps:
-Google Cardboard app: Just for the sake of the demo and Google Earth
-VR Cinema: Displays your phone videos in a 360° (similar one included above)
-Apollo 15 landing. One of the best made, most immersive app
-Cardboard Camera: Allows taking photos for VR
-Expeditions: The educational app used by Google for a student’s tour
-Google Street View: Classical app now compatible with VR
-Titans of Space: Educational, but heavy (342 mo), ideal for exploring the solar system
-Sisters: An interactive horror app, probably one of the most popular yet

From Cardboard to Daydream
As for today, the success of Google Cardboard could be translated in a few facts:
-10 million sold
-1000+ apps developed
-160,000+ apps installations performed
-400,000 hours of YouTube videos
-500,000 students introduced to it in a demo tour
Following this test, Google announced in May 2016 the launch of a more advanced, dedicated platform called Google Daydream, which is more comfortable and refined but still uses your phone as hardware.

Why using Youtube VR movies is a bad idea
Because of course of your brandywidth, annoying ads, often misleading vids which are often filling the « VR » and « Cardboard » semantic bucket with poor or deceptive content. The best Youtube VR experiences are OK if you have also the right, latest Phone to fully appreciate the trip. There are a few examples worth seeing though (see the links below), including movies, series demos, spectacular events, games, etc. Trust curators !

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