How Does Google’s Cardboard Hold Up?

google cardboard
The Google Expeditions app turns a smart phone and a little cardboard view kit into a fun virtual reality experience for as little as $20. Image: Rick Tate

When Google first announced their Google Cardboard VR (virtual reality) devices as an inexpensive means of obtaining the VR effect, my husband was thrilled at the prospect.

As a history and world geography teacher, he had been following the teaching potential–both at home and in the classroom–of Google’s free educational application, Google Expeditions. The program helps sends students on virtual field trips to from Paris, France to the surface of Mars.

The basic engineering of this item harkens back to the Victorian era stereoscopic (split screen) photograph viewers, on which today’s View-Master toys are based. The concept is to take two nearly identical photos side by side and, when viewed through lenses set a specific distance apart, it appears as one 3-D image.

Even today, most 3-D tech takes advantage of this simple idea, and tech behind Google Cardboard devices is no exception. There are several cardboard device designs available, as well as an easy template pattern to make one at home with upcycled cardboard. Most of the pre-made models range in price from $15 to $25, and we settled on the $19.99 I Am Cardboard version we purchased of Amazon. We even found images of viewers modifying vintage stereoscopes to use with the Google Expedition app. All of these are much more digestible prices for the home consumers, considering many high end VR devices will run well over $100, and sometimes into the thousands.

When we received our I AM Cardboard viewing kit, putting it together took less than ten minutes, even though it included just the bare minimum of instructions. We also had to learn how to properly use the device, which takes advantage of magnets on the side to help activate or control the features and interactive environments. The process is similar to clicking the little lever on the side of a View-Master, but not quite as easy. It takes a couple of tries sometimes to make it work.

By the end of the day, our entire family had gotten a chance to explore the surface of Mars, walk across London’s Tower Bridge (including the upper level walkway), swim in Great Barrier Reef, stroll through natural history, fine art, and air and space museums, do a barrel roll with pilots, and drive around the Top Gear test track with The Stig. Imagine how this type of experience could help excite students in a classroom situation.

girls with app
You really have to stand up to get the full effect of this application and device, at you can look up, down,  and all around during your virtual adventures. Images: Rick Tate.

Unlike traditional stereoscope images, the Google Expeditions options are 360 degree panoramic, and often explorable, scenes. The first scene I found was on the much-photographed grounds surrounding the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but through the Google Map street-view style application I was able to wander away from the tourist-heavy path, and by a secluded playground area in a nearby park, getting to see a slice of everyday life, as if I were there. That, I’ll admit, was really incredible.

Yes, there are plenty of 360 degree panoramic scenes people can explore with their smart phone and tablet devices, including photosphere camera apps to create your own scene, but looking at it via the I Am Cardboard device isolates viewers from the rest of the world, providing a little more feel of actual escape.

However, finding the escapes, especially those that can be crated in the stereoscope split screen suitable for Google Cardboard viewing, takes a some digging.

We found the biggest issue with this fun little gadget is gathering material suitable for use on the device.

The Google Cardboard application was at first introduced for Android devices, and although it is also available for iPhone and iPad, the viewing options are much slimmer. Android users have many more experiences from which to choose.

After exploring the limited albeit extremely cool options readily available, my husband spent a considerable amount of time that afternoon surfing for other options available to use. We found plenty of panoramic and photosphere environments, but not all ready for stereoscopic viewing.

However, we didn’t come up empty. Some of the apps and websites that work well with Google Cardboard include Air Pano, the Littlstar app (not Littlestar; it’s a kids’ music app), 360cities, and the Roundme App. All these can be viewed in stereoscopic VR images.

Also, cardboard being cardboard, we had to reinforce the viewer with some clear packing tape after just one day of wear-and-tear from one family. This means, be wary of just throwing it into the eager grabby hands of an entire school classroom without strict supervision on using it. I also recommend a back up for those wanting to use it regularly in class.

set
The I AM Cardboard view kits are really very simple little devices…and they can be as fragile as any cardboard box…but they are certainly more affordable than a high end virtual reality device. Images: Rick Tate.

The idea of this item is excellent, but if you want to jump into having a large library of items straight away, especially for non-Android users, I would suggest waiting a while until more content is available.

If you don’t mind hunting a little, there is usable content out there, that, although might not be completely hi-def or interactive.

Even with these limits, I really loved this small, foldable product that requires only smart phone to bring an entire world of learning, virtual travel, and fun into the classroom… or home.

Lisa Kay Tate is a veteran feature writer with 20 years experience in newspaper, magazine and freelance writing. In addition to serving as Associate Editor for her local arts and entertainment guide, El Paso Scene, she has been a regular contributor to the site ihogeek.com and maintains her own blogsite at lisathegeekmom.wordpress.com. She and her husband, writer/photographer Rick, live on the edge of "New Texico" where they keep busy raising their two geeklings and sharing space with their dog, Sirius Black, and cat, Loki.