Virtual reality is making a comeback. At least, the hype about virtual reality is making a comeback. Its resurgence has been fuelled by Facebook's $2bn acquisition of Oculus VR, which landed Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey on the cover of Wired magazine. In the past year, companies such as Sony and Samsung have announced plans to develop virtual-reality gadgets of their own. For all the hoopla, however, not one of those devices has a definite timetable for release. And when they do arrive, each is likely to cost more than £100.
All of which is to say that the virtual-reality revolution may yet be a way off – again. But that doesn't mean you can't get a taste of it right now. There's a virtual-reality viewer already on the market that's fun and easy to use – and you can get a version of it for just $25 (£15.50). It's called the DodoCase VR viewer, and it's about the most fun you can have with a smartphone, a lolly stick, and a cardboard box.
DodoCase is a San Francisco start-up best known for making iPad cases. Thanks to Google, however, just about anyone can now build a simple contraption that turns your smartphone into a virtual-reality machine. At its annual developer conference in June, Google introduced an open-source blueprint for do-it-yourself VR viewers, called Google Cardboard. It sounded like a joke, but it isn't. It's ingenious.
The idea behind Google Cardboard was that you don't need a bunch of fancy technology to experience immersive, three-dimensional movies and games. All you really need is your smartphone, some cardboard, a pair of biconvex lenses and some Velcro to hold it all together. With the right tools, you can build one from scratch at home.
But it's a lot easier to buy a kit like the DodoCase VR, which is among the simplest and best designed of several third-party commercial Google Cardboard kits. (DodoCase co-founder and "Chief Dodo" Patrick Buckley is actually an MIT-trained mechanical engineer who worked as a scientist before he started making skeuomorphic iPad cases.) Other well-reviewed Cardboard implementations include kits from Knox Labs and I Am Cardboard.
Each comes with slightly different components – the lolly stick as a trigger button for games was DodoCase's idea, not Google's – but they all work in essentially the same way. You start by loading up one of several smartphone apps that's optimized for virtual-reality viewers, like Asteroid VR and the Cardboard app for Android, or Dive City Rollercoaster and The Height for iOS. These apps split the phone's screen into left and right halves to create the illusion of three-dimensionality and use the phone's gyroscope and other sensors to track and respond to its movements.
Then you insert the phone horizontally into the Cardboard viewer, whose lenses distort the screen so that it wraps around your field of vision. Hold the viewer up to your face, and you'll find that you can explore the app's virtual world by looking up, down and from side to side. It's this immersive effect that distinguishes "virtual reality" from plain old 3-D.
The 10 best smartphones
The 10 best smartphones
1/10 iPhone 6 and 6 Plus
Apple’s latest comes in two varieties: the iPhone 6 (4.7- inch screen and only 6.9mm thick) and the iPhone 6 Plus – a larger (5.5-inch) version, more suited for those with gorillasized hands. The experience remains largely the same: expect sleek, beautiful apps in a package that ties you into their ecosystem. From £539, store.apple.com
2/10 ZTE Blade L2
At only £90, the Blade is the perfect price-point for making sure your kids are safe when they leave the house. The battery lasts for 23 hours, so they can contact you easily, wherever they are. 5MP camera and a 5-inch screen. £89.99, store.virginmedia.com
3/10 Sony Xperia Z3
Anyone who wants a full PlayStation experience should at least consider this phone, which allows you to stream PS4 games from your console to the phone’s screen from November this year. Remarkably, it’s also waterproof up to 1.5m – so if you’re clumsy or just love the beach, this could be for you. From £469.99, shop.ee.co.uk
4/10 Nokia 930
The base model comes in at 32GB of storage. The main attraction to the Nokia Lumia range is a 4.5-inch ClearBlack screen with its brilliant contrast. The Microsoft Office app is among the best for any writer. For anyone who isn’t tied into Android or iOS this is a strong choice. Free on plans from £30.50/month, shop.vodafone.co.uk
5/10 Amazon Fire
Perfect for the Shazam generation you can point this phone – which works like any other Android phone – at pretty much anything and it will tell you what it is, how much it is, and where to buy it. Not for everyone, but if you’re a consumer it will likely change how you shop. Free, only on contract, amazon.co.uk
6/10 Moto G
Although it lacks the bells and whistles of the more expensive phones on the list, it’s still a great phone for its price, with access to emails, Facebook and more. Ideal for anyone who’s feeling the pinch this autumn. £90, shop.vodafone.co.uk
7/10 HTC One M8
The camera on the M8 has a special depth sensor for quicker focusing and clearer pictures. The phone itself is 90 per cent metal, so it doesn’t feel plasticy or liable to breaking. Also has front facing speakers and builtin amplifiers for those last barbecues of the season. £549.99, shop.emea.htc.com
8/10 LG G3
With its 5.5-inch screen the G3 is the same size as the iPhone 6 Plus but in an Android package. It has a 13MP camera with a laser focus, can charge wirelessly but isn’t waterproof or dust-resistant like some of the other phones on this list. £479.95, carphonewarehouse.com
9/10 Samsung Galaxy Alpha
The latest Samsung looks set to replace my personal phone. It’s got a 4.7-imch Super AMOLED screen but the main attraction is Samsung’s “Ultra Power-Saving Mode”, which turns the smart-beast’s screen into greyscale and limits the apps you can use, allowing it to run for days. From £449.99, shop.ee.co.uk
10/10 Nexus 5
Rumours of a new Google phone are rampant at the moment but their last offering, the Nexus 5, still packs a punch. The 5-inch screen is made from Gorilla Glass 3, so should resist a bunch of scratches. £299, play.google.com
The apps, to be clear, are not exactly Bioshock Infinite. They're more like demos than full-featured games. Dive City Rollercoaster – which is actually designed for a different VR viewer, the German-made Durovis Dive, but works surprisingly well on Cardboard – is not really interactive at all. Like the popular rollercoaster demo for the Oculus Rift, all you can do is look around at the track, the sky, and the scenery as it rushes by.
The Height is a little more interactive. You're dropped into a maze surrounded by green walls and scaffolding, and you're tasked with… well, getting somewhere, I suppose, without falling down an open shaft. A couple of colleagues who tried the game told me that the speed of the motion made them dizzy, a complaint that has dogged virtual reality since the days of the Nintendo Virtual Boy.
But Cardboard is already better than Virtual Boy in several ways, because today's smartphones are more powerful than the cutting-edge mobile gaming systems of 1995. For one thing, they have high-definition, full-colour screens as opposed to an array of ghastly red LEDs.
Do you look like an idiot holding a cardboard box up to your face and jerking your head around wildly? You do. On the plus side, anyone watching this display will be less concerned with mocking you and more concerned with finding out what it is you're so engrossed in and trying it for themselves.
The simplicity of the games available for Cardboard – and even for Oculus Rift, for that matter – makes it clear that virtual reality is still not quite ready to go mainstream. Developing immersive, three-dimensional worlds is clearly a lot more time- and resource-intensive than developing, say, Flappy Bird. In the short term, we're likely to see VR used more for things like short films and historical set pieces than fully fledged games or movies.
Yet for all those obstacles, VR already offers a wow factor that few other entertainment experiences can match. A simple rollercoaster demo on a smartphone viewed through a cardboard box makes you feel more like you're there than a £70m Hollywood blockbuster in 3-D iMax. The immediacy of VR gives it an advantage that Hollywood and the gaming industry are sure to capitalise on eventually.
DodoCase's Buckley is the first to admit that the Cardboard experience is something less than mind-blowing. "This thing's not going to be a high-end gaming system," he says. "But I think that VR is on its way, really. This is the appetiser, and the entrée's going to come later."
You can order the DodoCase VR online on the DodoCase website, or as part of a package with the Virtual Reality Beginner's Guide, a slim book that Buckley co-authored with TechCrunch writer Frederic Lardinois. You can also find several other versions of Cardboard, including I Am Cardboard, on Amazon and elsewhere.
Today's rudimentary VR headsets may be to virtual reality what archaic gizmos like the old-time movie viewer were to cinema. But for such a small price, it's hard to be too disappointed. Buckley is convinced the low barrier to entry is exactly what's needed to get the nascent virtual-reality industry going. "I think it's on its way, really. You get a million people buying a $25 gift for their nieces and nephews, and all of a sudden you have a large audience for these types of apps."
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