As a low cost entry point to the world of virtual reality entertainment, these smartphone powered cardboard headsets deserve their place in the display lineup. If you can't quite afford the cream then try the substitute first, as they say.
With just a mobile phone and a few dollars extra, you can be getting your introductory taste of immersive experiences in VR.
The good news is there is a way to kick off your VR experiences at a much more affordable price, allowing you to at least sample virtual reality before you need to empty your bank account.
The answer? Use one of the so-called ‘cardboard’ headsets.
These were the first types of headsets to be available for consumer release, with Google getting a head start in 2014 on the competition with their version. 2015 saw the release of an improved version which has reportedly sold in the millions. They’re simple, do it yourself affairs. Made out of cardboard or cheap plastic, they come flat-packed ready for you to fold into shape or snap the pieces together.
The end result is a headset that holds your smartphone directly in front of your eyes. Just don the headset and you’re ready for some introductory VR experiences.
Are They Good?
Well, the price is definitely good. The reality is they offer nowhere near the immersive experience of the powerful desktop PC devices, but they do offer a simple way to see what all the fuss is about.
They’re lightweight and generally comfortable to wear, plus fairly straightforward to put together and get up and running.
How Do They Work?
There are no real technical insides to a cardboard headset, other than special lenses. The body of the unit has a front-of-the-eyes holder into which your smartphone either slides or gets strapped to.
With the phone directly in front of your eyes, it displays two images side by side which – due to the proximity – your brain sees as one. This is the basic principle of how 3D imaging works.
It’s the phone that powers the feeling of immersion in whatever you’re viewing – using the gyroscope and accelerometer in the mobile to let you roam freely within the VR scenes.
What’s The Best VR Content For a Cardboard Headset?
Games and other complex material that require ‘physical’ interaction are offered on a pretty basic level. Where the cardboard headsets hit the mark is in displaying 360 degree videos and other purely visual experiences.
Some of the more interesting apps include Orbulus, where you’ll get the chance to explore different global iconic landmarks such as the Sydney Opera House, and Rollercoaster which as the name implies takes you on a front seat ride guaranteed to give some exhilarating 360 degree scares.
The Hang Gliding app sounds like fun if you love the idea of free-flying experiences, and going the other way down into the sea with Dive Deep plunges you into
ocean depths in the company of fish, sharks and whales.
There’s a small cost for using some full apps once you’ve exhausted their demo versions. JurrasicLand is a good example. For under £2 you’ll soon be riding in a jeep similar to the one in the movies, with a variety of dinosaurs either wanting to lick or eat you.
From a games perspective many work with a keyboard or joystick. One of the exceptions is VR-Gun Defense, a zombie shooter.
Where Can I Get The Content?
The App store will most likely be your first port of call. Google’s own Cardboard app contains some entertaining demos, including interesting 360 degree landmark tours. Go to Google Play and just search for ‘cardbaord’ for a full list of what’s available.
Cardboard has been available for Android much longer than the iPhone, so it’s unsurprising that there is more content available for use with Android devices.
And The Models Themselves?
Google were first out of the traps with the Google Cardboard headset, but since then there have been a number of competitor releases. Lets take a look at a few of the contenders for the ‘I’m the best cardboard headset’ award:
It’s not known as cardboard for nothing, with cardboard the actual material used for some headsets. As you’d expect, there’s not a great deal of difference between the most basic versions, aside from the maker, build, and other components.
For some examples, take a look at Unofficial Cardboard ($14.95), I Am Cardboard ($20), and Knoxlabs ($23.95). On the free side even Coca Cola have got in on the act by releasing cardboard packaging that can be turned into origami-style virtual reality glasses for smartphones.
As a step upwards there are some that are made of rigid foam or cheapish plastic. The Mattel View-Master falls into the first of these categories.
In an interesting development, even McDonalds have now ‘released’ their own cardboard headset. It comes in the form of a Happy Meal box would you believe. For the price of a Happy Meal you get a foldable headset for kids, along with a specially developed game. But only if you’re in Sweden, as it looks like a week long trial will run there only. Maybe if successful it’ll be rolled out on a wider global basis.
With good and bad points, Google Cardboard is essentially a starter kit for anyone wanting their first taste of virtual reality at a low cost. In fact there are instructions around for building one yourself for free. From cardboard of course.
You’ll already have the smartphone, so it is a cheap way to get into the game. The quality of the experiences probably won’t blow you away – you’ll need an Oculus Rift or Gear VR headset for that – but the fun factor will be high for a while.
The first video below gives a good overview of the headsets, with the second showing instructions on how to make your own.