Growing up in the 80’s, I heard a lot of promises that Virtual Reality was right around the corner, the same way my parents had been promised flying cars. Any day now, I was going to be plunged right into a William Gibson novel, a virtual cowboy avoiding ICE.
When the Oculus Rift came out in 2012, it created some buzz, but at $350, it was too expensive if you were just casually curious. Then in 2014, google jumped in the game and showed us that VR didn’t have to be out of reach. A smartphone has enough computing power to show stereoscopic images, and you can build a headset to hold it very cheaply. Google gave away the original Google Cardboard kit at their developer conference, and caused a minor internet sensation. Unfortunately, probably due to the ongoing feud between Google and Apple, the Google Cardboard kit was made specifically for android phones, and if you had an iphone you were out of luck. But, true to the DIY ethos of the web, creative people found workarounds.
I was intrigued enough to start digging in. If I could try it out for a few dollars, why not? Here’s what I did, how it worked, and what you need to know to try it yourself.
What you need:
First of all you’ll need the cardboard itself. I used the original DIY cardboard templates from google, which you can download here. You can buy kits premade for about $30 from that site also, but I was going for the lowest cost solution. Be aware that you want E-flute cardboard, which is about 1/16″ thick. This is thinner than the normal corrugated cardboard you’ll find in most shipping boxes. I found enough in various non-shipping boxes that I had sitting around. I’ve read that pizza boxes are also the right thickness.
Google also lists a bunch of other stuff you will need: lenses, magnets, Velcro, rubber bands, NFC tags, etc. You won’t actually need most of the stuff. The magnet and rubber band are used to make an input for specific android apps. If you’re doing this with an iphone, that won’t work, so you don’t need to bother. You will need lenses. I got mine from Unofficial Cardboard for about $10. I had some Velcro left over from other projects, so that was essentially free.
Next, I printed out the Google template onto 11″x17″ sheets of paper and taped them to my cardboard, and carefully and painstakingly cut the shapes out. This took probably 2 hours spread out over several days. I had the best luck with a large razor-blade style box cutter for the long straight cuts, and a small xacto knife for the smaller detailed features. Note that you don’t actually have to glue the template to the cardboard.
Once the shapes were cut out, it was just a matter of folding them up correctly. The online instructions are not super clear, so hopefully my pictures will help with any confusion. Be sure to put the interior pieces in correctly to hold the lenses in place. One good tip I picked up from Unofficial Cardboard: put a piece of scotch tape right where your forehead touches the cardboard. Otherwise it’ll get unpleasantly greasy surprisingly quickly.
Finally it was time to try it out. I downloaded several iphone apps to try out. As of this writing, the easiest way to find VR apps on the iTunes store is to search for Durovis Dive (which is an $80 plastic version of what you just built out of cardboard). The good news is that the apps for the Durovis Dive work on the iPhone. UPDATE: Another good place to find iPhone compatible VR apps is here on the Unofficial Cardboard site.
For an iPhone 6, you’ll probably need to take your phone out of its case for it to fit in the cardboard. An iPhone 5 with a thin case may fit fine, I don’t know. Start the app, then put the phone in the cardboard, and then hold the cardboard up to your face. Here are my impressions of the apps I’ve tried so far:
Dive City Coaster:
You are riding a roller coaster, and you can look around by turning your head. The graphics aren’t spectacular, but I still got a little bit of motion feeling in my stomach. This is the app you’ll show to your friends first, because it requires no explanation or practice. But once you see it a couple of times yourself, you’ll be bored. Still, I tried this out sitting in a swivel chair, and I was surprised to see which way I was facing when I took the cardboard off. I give it 4 stars as a quick demo.
This one is an actual game, with things to do. You look down at a little icon at your feet, and it causes your avatar to walk in the environment. There are obstacles and goals, so this one actually merits some repeated play. 3 stars.
Kris Menace Virtual Edition:
This app is a step up in graphics from the others, and it does use headphones or earbuds to add surround sound to the experience, but there isn’t really anything to do in the app. 2 stars.
Duck hunt in 3D. Very basic, but there it is a legitimate game, and easily played, so this one becomes another easy one to show other people how VR works. 3 stars.
A dark first person shooter where you look at zombies to shoot them. Not bad. 3 stars.
Space Slider VR:
You are moving forward along a wireframe path trying to collect little pellets. The concept is not bad, but I found the navigation extremely frustrating. Your steering inputs do almost nothing until they suddenly do way too much. 2 stars.
Roller Coaster VR:
Another roller coaster. This one has prettier scenery (you’re in the jungle), but the ride itself is a little less immersive to me (I didn’t feel it in my stomach as much). Overall very good, and a toss up between this one and Dive City Coaster. 4 stars.
Is it worth doing?
For me, yes. Overall, for the time and money invested, this iOS Cardboard experiment was a pretty good sampling of the current state of budget VR. You can see the potential for great things to come when more developers get interested. But with the quality of the apps available right now, I’m glad I didn’t spend any more than I did on a headset. I’ve read that there may be some new toys available using WebGL on Safari in iOS 8. I’ll do an update if I find any good ones.