The virtual-reality revolution may yet be a ways off – but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a taste of it right now. In fact, there’s a virtual-reality viewer already on the market that’s fun and easy to use, and you can get a version of it for just $25. It’s called the DodoCase VR, and it’s about the most fun you can have with a smartphone, a Popsicle stick and a cardboard box.
DodoCase is not a high-tech consumer electronics company. It’s a San Francisco startup best known for making custom iPad cases. Thanks to Google, however, just about anyone can now build a simple contraption that turns your smartphone into a virtual-reality machine. At its annual developer conference in June, Google introduced an open-source blueprint for do-it-yourself VR viewers, called Google Cardboard. It sounded like a joke, but it isn’t. It’s ingenious.
The idea behind Google Cardboard was that you don’t need a bunch of fancy technology to experience immersive, 3-D movies and games. All you really need is your smartphone, some cardboard, a pair of biconvex lenses and some Velcro to hold it all together. With the right tools, you can build one from scratch at home.
But it’s a lot easier to buy a kit like the DodoCase VR, which is among the simplest and best designed of several third-party commercial Google Cardboard kits. (DodoCase co-founder Patrick Buckley is an MIT-trained mechanical engineer who worked as a scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory before he started making iPad cases.) Other well-reviewed Cardboard implementations include kits from Knox Labs and I Am Cardboard.
They all work essentially the same way. You start by loading one of several smartphone apps optimized for virtual-reality viewers, like Asteroid VR game and the Cardboard app for Android or Dive City Rollercoaster and The Height for iOS. These apps split the phone’s screen into left and right halves to create the illusion of three-dimensionality and use the phone’s gyroscope and other sensors to track and respond to its movements.
Then you insert the phone horizontally into the Cardboard viewer, whose lenses distort the screen so that it wraps around your field of vision. Hold the viewer up to your face, and you’ll find that you can explore the app’s virtual world by looking up, down, and from side to side. It’s this immersive effect that distinguishes “virtual reality” from plain old 3-D.
The apps are more like demos than full-featured games.
The Height is a little more interactive. You’re dropped into a maze surrounded by green walls and scaffolding, and you’re tasked with … well, getting somewhere, I suppose, without falling down an open shaft. A couple of colleagues who tried the game told me the speed of the motion made them dizzy, a complaint that has dogged virtual reality since the days of the Nintendo Virtual Boy.
But Cardboard is already better than Virtual Boy in several ways, because today’s smartphones are more powerful than the cutting-edge mobile gaming systems of 1995. For one thing, they have high-definition, full-color screens as opposed to an array of ghastly red LEDs.
(Do you look like an idiot holding a cardboard box up to your face and jerking your head around wildly? You do. That’s just part of the bargain with virtual reality at this point.)
The simplicity of the games available for Cardboard makes it clear that virtual reality is still not quite ready to go mainstream.
DodoCase’s Buckley is the first to admit the Cardboard experience is something less than mind-blowing.
“This thing’s not going to be a high-end gaming system,” he says. “But I think VR is on its way, really. This is the appetizer, and the entrée’s going to come later.”
You can order the DodoCase VR DodoCase’s website, or as part of a package with “Virtual Reality Beginner’s Guide,” a slim book ($25.95) Buckley co-authored with TechCrunch writer Frederic Lardinois. You can also find several other versions of Cardboard, including I Am Cardboard, on Amazon and elsewhere.