It started with Stuart Little.
I was reading the classic E.B. White book to our toddler during long drives, and we got to the part where he races a model boat across a pond in Central Park. I stopped. I said, “When we get home, I’ll show you where they’re talking about.” In theory, that was a problem; the Bay Area is a solid 2,900 miles away from Manhattan’s famous stripe of greenery.
But as a virtual reality enthusiast, I had just that week downloaded the latest iOS version of Google Street View to try with my Google Cardboard headset. I felt certain Central Park was well covered.
When we got home, I found the pond in Street View on my iPhone, switched the app to Cardboard mode, placed my phone in the headset, and handed the whole setup to my daughter while showing her what to do. I said, “That’s the pond where Stuart Little races.”
“I’m walking around the pond,” she said as she began to move around our living room. Tip: Do not let your toddler walk around a small room with a shoebox obscuring her vision. (Also, Street View doesn’t actually support advancing as you walk, but in her mind it did.) If you want to show your toddler iconic or even pedestrian sites, start–and maybe end–with Street View. On my own, I’ve checked out the Pyramids, Mount Rushmore, and more.
But our daughter is currently obsessed with the planets, stars, and constellations, which Street View doesn’t yet cover; I give it at least three more years. Within the Cardboard demo app, however, I brought up a photo taken by Spirit on Mars. “I’m on Mars!” she said.
Because books on astronomy mention calendars and thus Stonehenge, I brought up a view of the famous site in Street View. She was ecstatic: “I see a cow, daddy!” Why was I looking at some big rocks when there was a cow nearby?
More recently, I downloaded a Cardboard-compatible app that shows views of Pluto and Charon based on the photos taken by New Horizons. “I’m on Pluto!” she said. I’m hoping to carve out time to learn Unity just so that I can make a VR version of Star Walk and its kin. (Dear star-tracker developers: Please do this for iOS. Please. Pretty, pretty please.)
Reading Olivia Goes to Venice prompted a tour of the Grand Canal. She was disappointed to not see the brick the spirited pig pulls from the campanile. Madeline prompted a tour of the famous landmarks in that book. It will be a long time before I forget the sight of her orienting towards the Eiffel Tower, pausing, and then looking up. And up some more.
Seeing Paris would have been fun on its own, but Street View’s coverage of Palais Garnier had even I, who has seen the building itself innumerable times, gasping. Because the entire interior is mapped, including the view from the stage. (Street View extends to a number of museums, both officially and via crowdsourced uploads.)
I even used Street View to take my own “photo sphere” while we were all on a hike. Now we have a Cardboard-compatible memory of a spot our family visited where Google’s cameras will likely never go. The app’s stitching isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t have to be for us.
Of course, we’d rather take her to New York, Venice, or Paris in person. And one day we will. But until then, she tells people about seeing things in what she calls the “VRR” headset as if she’s really visited them. She talks about walking on Mars. Seeing Pluto. Visiting Stonehenge (there are cows there, you know).
And that’s all with Google’s cheap headset design running on an iOS device. Android devices get a lot more love, and that’s without factoring in the beefier VR experiences coming down the pipe.
Like many, I’m excited about VR games: Bazaar, from some talented former Maxis co-workers, and Land’s End, from the development team behind iOS favorite Monument Valley, are high on my list. I’m intrigued by the possibilities virtual reality offers to narrative and journalism. I imagine watching movies with a screen that seems huge will be great.
But I’m most excited to show my daughter an infinite universe. I try and follow all the VR news I can. I’m eager to see SpaceVR’s future work from the International Space Station and anything else they do. I search Apple’s App Store weekly for Google Cardboard apps. I’ve signed up for Google’s Expeditions, a program that will bring amazing VR experiences to schools (primarily) and parents (I hope).
Bring it on, VR developers. I’m ready. And so is my almost-three-year-old.
Here are some tips for traveling in virtual reality with your toddler. Leave the travel crib and provisions behind, and have fun:
- You can make your own Cardboard headset and save some money, but tracking down the lenses is evidently a pain. There are plenty of versions in the $20 range.
- For Cardboard users, getting the device lined up correctly in the headset can take time. Try it out yourself before handing it over to your toddler, and mark the headset with some guides to make it easy to place your particular phone later.
- If you’ve got a compatible Samsung device, consider a Samsung Gear VR headset along with a Cardboard. You’ll get lots more content and support for an uptick in price that still falls way below a full-blown headset. I’m considering investing in this setup even though I don’t currently have a phone that would work with it.
- Sitting down is a good idea. A swivel chair works great, according to my more VR-savvy friends.
- Google Street View will go a long way towards immersion. Navigating through the headset is tricky, even for myself, but you can set up a particular scene in advance and hand it to your child then.
- A special site doesn’t have to be a well-known landmark. The house you grew up in. The neighborhood your parents live in. A friend is in Kathmandu, and so I want to give our daughter a sense of the area.
- Many of the books you read with your children, as mentioned above, allude to real-world places that you can summon forth.
- Definitely scope out museums in Street View, as many have internal views. Your toddler may like seeing Monet’s Water Lilies, but they are probably more interested in, say, the dinosaurs at New York’s Museum of Natural History (which is also in the Cardboard demo app to stunning effect).
- Google Earth and YouTube both offer Cardboard support on Android. On iOS, the best you can do as of this writing is cede Google Earth altogether and go with in360Tube, which supports YouTube 360 videos but without the polished interface from Google’s app.
- Keep an eye on available apps for your preferred platform. More are coming out all the time.