You too can live in a 3D world

At Siggraph 2014 in Vancouver,  Google was giving  away Cardboard VR glasses  that use your large-screen  smartphone as the display. I  didn’t learn about it soon enough and  didn’t get one. Every week since then  I’ve put away 5 cents, and when I collected  $4.55, I went on eBay and bought  a kit. I was motivated to buy the Cardboard  kit after reading Ben Delaney’s  new book, Sex, Drugs, and Tessellation.   

The first step was to assemble the  cardboard box, and it was easy. Next  you go to Play Store, type in “cardboard,”  and download some apps. If  you only do one, download Orbulus. 

Orbulus, developed by VRCraftworks,  is a hands-free app that will  open or close a scene if you just stare at  it a while. You are presented with dozens  of spheres, and if you pause for just  a second, their names come up. If you  linger on a sphere, the sphere’s world  opens and you are treated to the interior  of a large spherical image, in 3D  with 360-degree freedom of movement  in two axes (left-right, up-down). The  3D spherical images are made by various  people and submitted to VRCraftworks  for posting. You can stand on  Mars, go to King Arthur’s Glastonbury  Tor, see New Year’s Fireworks on Hong  Kong Harbour, or gaze at the Northern  Lights. Allegedly, you can even get married.  The quality of the image is half the  line resolution of your phone, so if your  phone is HD, then each eye will see 960  x 1080, which isn’t bad, but not great  (and similar to what Morpheus offers). 

Perhaps one of the most interesting  VR apps is Google Maps, which was  quietly announced on Google Plus. 

The headset 

There is a washer on the side of  the headset that can be pushed up and  down to create changes in the magnet’s  field, which affects the phone’s compass.  The Android app that accompanies  Cardboard treats that change in  field as a click. 

Google has offered a clever, and traditionally  inexpensive, gateway to VR.  The company is also working on Project  Tango, which could result in a phone  that senses its surroundings in 3D; this  could be a terrific addition to a Cardboard headset, among other things.

Cardboard is a quick, clever way to get people to experience the basic virtual reality experience without having to make a major investment in a highend system and then to find out it’s just a novelty.

As of now, the VR headsets remind me of the days when lasers first became a commercial device in the late 1960s. Then, as now, this was a technology looking for a problem to solve. Game playing and some product development/ evaluation seem to be the most obvious. Medical and surgical training is another, and devout VR’ers can reel off another half dozen, given a chance.

However, VR, in its current form, is the same as S3D was/is: an uncomfortable, isolating novelty. For geeks like me it’s the current best drug we can get. But my next door neighbor wouldn’t have anything to do with it.