According to the news that came out of Google I/O 2015, the developer conference in San Francisco, the future of virtual reality headsets looks set to be cardboard.
Yes, you read that correctly. Despite millions of dollars’ worth of investment into VR headset prototypes – most of which we’ve been lucky enough to demo at Rebellion studios – it’s a classic ‘fold your own’ cardboard kit, launched by Google in 2014, that could help to drive virtual reality experiences mainstream.
Google has announced that it’s expanding its content and offering these budget kits to schools, so that students and teachers will be able to go on virtual field trips and explore VR environments from history.
The simple cardboard structure is fitted with special lenses, which uses a smartphone as a screen. The fold-to-create device is now easier to assemble, can support larger phones and the software required now runs on iOS, in addition to Android. A teacher can also now control the footage streamed simultaneously to dozens of cardboard kits via a single smartphone or tablet, which makes them ideal for the classroom.
Such an affordable VR product shows how ready VR is to hit the mainstream. With second-generation Oculus Rift devices available to developers for around £230 and Sony’s much anticipated Project Morpheus due for release on PlayStation 4 next year around the £200-300 mark, VR has hit the kind of price point where it will appeal to a broad market of consumers.
Steam and HTC have hinted at a higher price point than this for their Vive headset but it’s still likely to be no more expensive than a new console and given the experience it offers, it shouldn’t put many seasoned gamers off. It could well be the case that cheaper, low-tech VR products like Google’s will help pique consumers’ interest for buying products like Project Morpheus and Vive.
While there are still concerns that virtual reality may make people motion-sick and further improvements are needed to develop safer ways to handle virtual movement without real-world collisions, this is most definitely also the time to do something about the fashionable appeal of these headsets.
Early VR – and don’t forget we’re still very much in the early adopter stage of the technology – was definitely unwieldy and Google’s cardboard incarnation isn’t exactly chic.
Yet by getting kids adjusted early to how they look while engaging with virtual worlds, they’ll be far more inclined to use the comparatively lithe newer VR headsets. Especially given that unlike the cardboard model, Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus offer the fully immersive head-tracking VR experience, enabling users to look around the virtual world with a tilt of their head as they would the real world.
I guess it’s the same road we travelled down for 3D glasses (remember the cardboard versions with the blue and red lenses?) Perhaps if Clive Sinclair had developed a wooden C5 go-kart or Larry Page had introduced Google Glass via novelty joke specs complete with nose and moustache, we’d all be a lot more accommodating to technology change.
In addition, Google has also announced a tie-up with the action camera-maker GoPro to create a device that can capture 360-degree panoramas in a new format called Jump.
The software that stitches together the captured views includes data regarding depth, which Google reckons will result in a VR experience with a more realistic sense of perspective than existing alternatives. I see this as great news for inexpensive game development, especially across mobile devices and again will help users to become adjusted to augmented reality environments.
By 2018, forecasters believe that 200 million people will be consuming regular content through a virtual reality headset. This will only come true, if a generation of schoolchildren feel comfortable wearing the technology and feel able to share their VR experience effectively.
These schoolchildren will grow into advanced gamers, with a real need to look cool and share their gaming experiences. By going back-to-basics, Google may just have stolen a march on the development of this virtual world acceptance.
Jason Kingsley OBE is chief executive of games maker Rebellion