Google Cardboard: tech giant staffers think outside the box

Blurring the distinction between the real and virtual worlds: Google takes another step down the road

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:55 ON Tue 1 Jul 2014

One of the things I’ve admired most about Google as an employer is its 20 per cent rule: it allows and encourages its employees to spend 20 per cent of their time on projects that don’t align with their normal job spec.

Sometimes these projects end up in commercial and industry success. Gmail started out as a 20 per cent project when Google was known more as a search engine than a global technology giant.

The latest poster child of the 20 per cent rule is Google Cardboard – a Virtual Reality (VR) headset made out of – yes – cardboard.

Google gave a $2 cardboard VR headset kit to all of the developers attending its annual developer conference a few days ago. It came as a DIY flat pack with a pair of fish-eye lenses, magnets, a rubber band and some Velcro snaps.

Those not lucky enough to attend the conference can download the instructions to make them: Google suggests “a large pizza box” is a useful size to use to make your modern- day View-Master (remember those?). Or for the lazy or X-Acto-knife-challenged, people who will make the headset for you are already offering their services on the web.

Google Cardboard

Once you’ve folded your headset into place, you download a Cardboard app onto your Android phone and slot the phone into its recyclable house. Here are a few of the Virtual Worlds you can already explore:

  • Fly around Earth with Google Earth; 
  • Drive through Paris with a local guide, or Versailles with a local guide (Why Paris? So old school! This confused me until I realised that the 20 per cent project came from two Google employees in Paris);
  • Examine cultural artifacts from every angle;
  • Follow a hat through an interactive and animated Pixar-like film made by Spotlight Stories called Windy Day.

The washer and magnet work with the phone’s compass and allow you to choose your applications or pick up an object (the analog equivalent of a click). The lenses focus your gaze on the split screen in a way which tricks your brain into believing that what you are seeing is in fact all around you. (This is called stereoscopic 3D view.) Move your head around and the screen changes as if you’re in that world – with no lag time. (This is thanks to the phone’s gyroscope, which measures “angular momentum”.)

So, why is Google fooling around with Virtual Reality with $2 headsets when Facebook recently bought Oculus Rift for a billion times that? Both Sony and Samsung are doing their own (not cheap) headsets. Surely a larger investment is required to do something meaningful in this field?

To my mind, Google has probably done Sony, Samsung and Facebook a massive favour. Here’s their reasoning:

“By making it easy and inexpensive to experiment with VR, we hope to encourage developers to build the next generation of immersive digital experiences and make them available to everyone.”

I bet that many of the developers at the conference had never thought of programming in Virtual, or Augmented, Reality. And they just now might. Which is a boon to this emerging technology.

Google didn’t just create this project from scratch - University of Southern California (USC) professor Mark Bolas created a DIY VR headset two years ago which used an iPhone. His Institute for Creative Technologies lab’s latest headset is plastic and can be printed by anyone with access to a 3D printer.

One application they’ve created combines an organic chemistry book with the VR glasses, which allows you to navigate through the chemical compounds you’ve just been reading about. (Had this been around when I was at university I might have stayed Pre-Med.)

Bolas’s goal is to blur the distinction between the real and digital worlds. He told BusinessWeek: “I don’t see a dividing line between virtual reality and real reality. I think in a few years they’re going to be indistinguishable.”

Most of what has excites me in writing this column does exactly that – Virtual Reality, 3D printing, and yes, even Rainbow Loom bracelets take the digital and turn it into the physical. And now Google is helping us take another step down this road. · 

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