Virtual Reality on the Cheap, but Is It Any Good?

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Have you ever wanted to try virtual reality out for yourself but can’t afford any of that cool Oculus Rift gear? That’s okay, neither can we, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to approximate a (cheap) VR experience with Google Cardboard.

Cardboard is an initiative launched by Google in 2014 to encourage development of virtual reality (VR) and VR apps. It’s called Cardboard because anyone can purchase or construct their own headset using simple materials such as velcro, tape adhesive, and most importantly, cardboard. Upon acquiring a headset, you can then use your Android smartphone to try out various VR apps available on Google Play.

We decided to give it a try and picked up the EightOnes VR Kit off of Amazon for $17.99 (though at this time it is priced at $19.99). There are literally dozen of Cardboard kits out there, so check out Google’s Cardboard kits page or download and build your own using their step-by-step instructions.

Cardboard kits don’t usually come preassembled. Ours came in a flat, padded envelope. Included in the kit was the VR headset, a velcro head strap, and an instruction sheet.

We chose a model with a head strap figuring it might make it a more natural experience but they are generally an optional feature, as is the NFC sticker that lets you instantly pair your phone to the headset when you use the Cardboard app, which we’ll talk about in a bit.

Assembling this kit was a pretty simple process of just slotting tab 1 into slot 1, tab 2 into slot 2, etc., and just carefully folding it altogether. All told it took us about 10 minutes to create what you see below.

Once complete, our phone (Android only) is placed onto the front, folding cover, which is then held in place by Velcro.

Every Cardboard kit is different though they’re all the same basic design. Not all come with NFC or head straps, and you can find them in a variety of colors and even patterned finishes.

Setting up the Cardboard App

To get the idea of what Cardboard is all about, we first downloaded and installed the app from the Google Play store.

When first run, the Cardboard app will need to be set up with your headset. Tap the arrow in the lower-right corner to get started.

If you have an NFC sticker on your headset, then you can just place your phone on the front cover and it will instantly pair, otherwise you will need to scan the QR code on your particular unit.

Once your viewer is identified, you’re good to go. Ours was simply recognized and configured as a default viewer.

With that done, it’s time to take this thing for a spin (literally) and see how it works.

Headaches, Dizziness, and Nausea Hooray!

To use the Cardboard app, we loaded it up and moved from icon to icon by turning our head left or right.

There’s a tutorial demo that shows you briefly how to use it. All you do is slide and release the magnetic ring on the side of the headset to “click” and tilt the headset 90 degrees to go back to the home screen (pictured below).

The demos you get in the Cardboard app are pretty basic, aside from the Tutorial there’s a Tour Guide where you can briefly tour the Palace of Versailles, an Exhibit demo, which allows you to view African face masks, and so on.

Perhaps the most interesting demo was the Earth one, which let us virtually fly over cities and famous locations. It’s not a totally immersive experience in that, you know you’re using a $20 piece of cardboard with cheap plastic lenses to minimally interact with simple animations and flyovers, but it’s pretty neat nonetheless.

That said, the whole effect of placing your smartphone screen two inches from your eyes and then focusing on it through cheap plastic lenses can be a little trying. Moreover, we didn’t really expect so much vertigo and nausea.

So, while we really wanted to go through a range of apps with Cardboard, it became quickly apparent that a powerful headache was imminent. Thus our testing was severely curtailed and limited to a few minutes at a time.

There are other VR apps on the Google Play store, which you can access from the Cardboard app.

We tried out the Orbulus app just to see if our experience with Cardboard was consistent and again, the vertigo, nausea, and headache all reared their ugly heads.

It’s possible that VR or just Cardboard isn’t our cup of tea, or it could be that a better headset with higher quality lenses might alleviate or mitigate the problems. We tend to believe that it’s all that, and the smartphone platform which holds it back.

If you really want a smooth, convincing VR experience, the faster your hardware the better it will be. In our testing we used a Nexus 5, which by today’s standards is an obsolete dinosaur, and nowhere was that more apparent than in the Earth demo, where it took quite a bit of time to draw the landscapes as we flew over them.

Beyond Cardboard: Get Better Cheap VR with Google Daydream

Related: How to Set Up and Use Google Daydream View with Your Android Phone

After testing the waters with Cardboard, Google jumped into the deep end of VR with Daydream, a more extensive virtual reality headset system that launched alongside its Pixel phones in 2016. Daydream includes support for more complex and immersive VR applications thanks to new rendering and tracking techniques, and the soft, fabric-lined headset comes with a one-handed touch and motion controller. The Daydream View headset bundle costs $70 (though it might be offered free with future Google devices), which is more expensive than Cardboard, but still less than half the cost of Samsung’s similar Gear VR system.

Though initially compatible only with Google phones, other manufacturers are free to certify their phones for use with Daydream, and several flagship phones from Samsung, Motorola, ASUS, Huawei, and ZTE. Not all Android phones work with Cardboard, but if you happen to have a high-end phone that does and you want to check out a more expansive take on virtual reality, it might be worth looking into.

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