HooToo Ultra VR Box, to be specific. It’s basically the same as Google Cardboard by being an iPhone shell with two lenses placed between my eyes and the phone’s screen. The differences include it being made of plastic instead of (you guessed it) cardboard, the position of the lenses is adjustable, and a few minor user-friendly options. No external button to interact with the phone while inside the shell, unlike a few other models I looked into.
I spent a measly $16 on Amazon, so I’m okay with that I got. (For the record, I’m getting nothing for tossing up the product’s link.)
What I got is the most basic “virtual reality” available. No, I never expected anything comparable to higher-end VR hardware like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, or PlayStation VR. Such expectations is like playing a 2003 cell phone game believing that I’m getting something comparable to Knights of the Old Republic.
What exactly is the difference? For those unaware, the phone is doing the heavy lifting. The screen shows the content as two smaller screens, each screen viewed by one of your eyes through the lenses. This creates the (easily broken) illusion of 3D. The phone also tracks head movement using the built-in sensors to determine where you’re looking, but that’s all. Unlike the more powerful VR setups I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the iPhone doesn’t track when you stand and move side-to-side or duck or jump around.
Of course, that limits the types of content that can be created for Google Cardboard. What I found on Apple’s App Store is too many apps centered around riding a roller coaster, which makes sense. It’s a ride where the only requirement for the participant is that she sit, and that’s exactly what people wearing Google Cardboard will be doing.
I don’t want to spent this blog post poo-pooing the Google Cardboard, though. It’s a cheap taste of something better that’ll hopefully be widely available at a reasonable price in a couple of years. Instead, I want to focus on my experiences with the applications available for Google Cardboard.
It should be noted that the number of apps available for Cardboard is fewer on iOS than Android, so I’m likely missing quite a few VR apps. Furthermore, I’m only brushing the surface of what’s found on iOS.
Cardboard by Google
Imagine a tray with small portions of food to entice people for more. Now instead of a plate, picture your phone, and instead of food, small images previewing free and paid apps. Cardboard isn’t just an ad though, as the app contains several demos, including viewing locations like Paris, Tokyo, and Mars (courtesy the Spirit rover), and viewing objects like the Hawk Rattle and Vatican Mask from any angle. Arctic Journey, the last of the demos, sends players flying over a 3D space, create flowers, and hang with wolves.
Unlike other Google Cardboard shells, mine lacks a button for pressing the screen, which Cardboard makes regular use of, forcing me to remove the tray holding my phone from the shell and touching the screen myself. While that’s hardly the application’s fault, but it would’ve been nice if Google anticipated button-less versions of Google Cardboard.
Discovery VR by Discovery Communications
Take a few seconds and mentally compile a list of videos that might be shown by the Discovery channel. Underwater adventures with sharks? Hanging with fisherman? Exploring the jungle? That’s all here, in frustratingly low quality. I imagine that a certain group will enjoy this (likely the same group keeping the Discovery Channel afloat), but I’m not one of them. Maybe if the videos were in higher quality.
Sisters: A Virtual Reality Ghost Story by Otherworld Interactive
You’re sitting on your couch at home and listening to the television warn of an impending severe storm when the power goes out. What follows are noises outside the room, the door opening by itself, and a face in the television that vanishes upon looking at it.
And that’s as far as I got. I’m not great with horror, but the stuff I mentioned above isn’t exactly original. That repelled me enough that I quit, more so than any fright that I was expected to feel. I mean, a face in the television doesn’t exactly scare me. And doors opening on their own? I have that happen to me regularly. It’s called having a cat.
Maybe it gets better, though. I didn’t stick around to find out.
Street View by Google
The title describes this perfectly. It’s Google Maps Street View, except you’re looking around at that fixed point on the static, 360* image. I do give this credit because people can upload their own 360* images, allowing people to escape the usual roads and see locations unavailable on normal Street View.
While this app isn’t inventive, I confess to sometimes dropping Google Maps’ little yellow man at a random spot in a foreign city… just to check it out. Throwing on the goggles doesn’t make me suddenly think I’m in that city, but having the view react to my head movements is still neat. It’s a shame that the images aren’t higher quality, but it’s still neat to be dropped into the middle of Tokyo or Paris and getting a glimpse.
Within by Within Unlimited
The most impressive application I’ve downloaded is, like the Discovery app, a collection of VR videos, but where the aforementioned Discovery is lacking in quality and delivers exactly what you’d expect, Within is a little more ambitious. Well, the videos within, er, Within are more ambitious, ranging from animated shorts (“Invasion!”) to music videos to a mini-documentary about the creation of a New York Times cover (“Walking New York”).
Delivered in much, much better video quality, I might add.
They’re higher quality, too. One video has me traveling through a CG environment that starts bright and happy, devolves into dark and depressing (and seemingly warning about the dangers of VR), before sucking me up into a static-filled tube (“Stor Eiglass”). Another follows the neural activity of a man who claims to have fallen in love with a woman at first sight (“LoVR”).
A music video of “Song For Someone” by U2 starts with the four-member rock band performing around me before fading into a performance of the song from people in the United States, Isreal, Canada, and elsewhere. When it occasionally jumps back to Bono and the rest of U2, that sounds I’m hearing reflect where I’m viewing, so turning away from Bono makes me sound like he’s behind me. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but that’s a welcome change from the blast of sound that comes with most VR videos.
Of everything I wrote about here (which admittedly wasn’t a bunch), this is the one application that I suggest people check out. With the variety of videos located Within, there’s a reasonable chance of finding something appealing.
YouTube by Google
On a certain level, I understand why you’d want to watch YouTube videos in VR, which tosses the video in front of you as if you’re looking at a television. Many smartphone screens are still comparatively small when placed beside tablets, computer monitors, and television screens, so if VR allows the viewer a larger image to stare at, why not?
Still, there’s the argument that anyone interested in VR (even the cheapest brand) probably already has something with a larger screen for YouTube.
A small number of videos do offer 360* views, but most suffer from bad quality or just aren’t interesting (a guy silently walks down the sidewalk, for instance). So YouTube with this thing is probably a novelty at best, at least until more imaginative people create better content.