If the current fascination with virtual reality begins to wane — and I suspect it will — we’ll know the exact moment the tide turned. Sunday, Nov. 8.
That was when about a million Americans received a gift along with their Sunday New York Times — a Google Inc. gadget that turns any Apple or Android smartphone into a virtual reality (VR) viewing system. It works quite well. At least as well as 3D television, and we all know how popular that’s proven to be.
The gadget is named Google Cardboard, and that’s pretty much what it is — precut pieces of cardboard with plastic lenses, Velcro fasteners, and a slot for inserting a smartphone. It all assembles into a simple viewer that you hold in front of your eyes like an old-school ViewMaster slide viewer. If you didn’t get the freebie, you can buy one online for $20. When you run compatible software on your phone, Cardboard creates the illusion of three-dimensional depth as you watch New York Times videos, like a harrowing story of child refugees and an artist’s stroll through New York City.
At a 3D movie theater, if you turn away from the screen, you only see the viewers next to you, or empty seats. By contrast, Cardboard videos put you inside a panoramic world. Look up, and there’s sky. Look down and there’s earth. Look left or right, and you’ll see some guy get clobbered with a boxful of stolen diamonds — a scene from a Cardboard crime story created by carmaker Mini. Add high-fidelity audio from the phone’s headphone jack, and the total effect is pleasantly immersive.
Still, you’re never sure which way to look. A critical moment may occur behind your back or above you, and if you don’t turn quickly enough, you’ll miss it. As a result, it’s best to watch these videos while standing up, or seated in a swivel chair.
Besides, it’s not true VR, where users interact with the digital world — chatting with its inhabitants, driving down its highways, fighting in its wars. In Cardboard videos you’re locked in, a passive spectator with just enough freedom of movement to glance over your shoulder. As with 3D television, an hour or two of Cardboard-style VR is more than enough. It’s such a mild dose that it may immunize viewers against the real thing.
Virtual reality seems a lot more real in video games, where your movements can alter the sights and sounds. However, there are only a handful of engaging games available for cellphones that can be viewed with Cardboard.
For example, an Android title, “Swivel Gun VR,” presents a simulated amusement park ride featuring a sailing ship with a cannon mounted in the bow. As you cruise along, you turn your head to aim the gun and press a button on the Cardboard viewer to fire cannonballs. With its crude graphics, “Swivel Gun VR” is no threat to high-end titles like “Halo.” But it hints at glossier pleasures to come.
Samsung Corp. rolls out its $99 Gear VR
headset later this month, but it’s basically a Cardboard upgrade, designed to work with Samsung’s Android smartphones. In 2016 we’ll see the heavy hitters, such as Sony Corp.’s PlayStation VR, the Oculus Rift
system from Facebook Inc., and Microsoft Corp’s HoloLens.
Such high-end devices will put Cardboard in the shade; I’ve tried the Oculus Rift, and it certainly does. Compatible games are being built, as well as some remarkable accessories. Perhaps the coolest of these is Virtuix Omni, a treadmill that lets users play run-and-gun games by literally running. The player’s VR headset shows the game’s landscape shifting in response to the player’s footsteps, as if he were really dashing across a battlefield.
But serious VR comes at a price. The treadmill alone costs $700, and it’s nothing without VR goggles. You’ll probably pay between $300 and $500 for the Sony and Oculus systems, according to unconfirmed press reports.
The Sony system needs a $350 PlayStation 4 gaming console, while Oculus requires a high-end PC with an advanced graphics card. And while Microsoft HoloLens is a stand-alone system, its first version will cost $3,000.
Will we buy VR systems? The fate of Microsoft’s Kinect system provides a sobering hint. Kinect costs just $150 and lets users control games with voice and body movements. Yet only a handful of major games are Kinect-compatible, and sales of the device have slumped. So who’s up for the much bigger investment in a VR rig? Yeah, me neither.
A few virtual reality companies will prosper; there are enough hard-core gamers to guarantee that. But for most of us, gadgets like Cardboard are as close to virtual reality as we’re likely to get. And after a week or two, even Cardboard will end up in a drawer, next to those unused 3D glasses.