When Google launched Cardboard in 2014 it surprised us with a simple, accesible way to enjoy Virtual Reality experiences. The experiment allowed everybody to experiment and get that first impressions with this kind of content. You didn’t have to invest a lot of money in some previous version of Oculus Rift to marvel at these virtual worlds: you could spend $10 dollars and feel that promise.
Google Cardboard democratized Virtual Reality.
Everything has changed with Google Daydream, the updated version of that first device that is radically different from the original idea. Whereas Cardboard was open to everybody and every device, Daydream is at the moment closed to just two smartphones: Pixel and Pixel XL.
The price goes up as well, and we don’t know for sure what are the specs needed by other hardware makers in order to make their smartphones Daydream compatible. The problem is, there’s no backwards compatibility, so what in the past was accesible to everyone now is just available to a few users.
So Daydream maybe a better product with a better build quality and maybe better content —still no killer app, it seems—, but it no longer democratizes Virtual Reality. Daydream instead goes the other way around..
And that’s a tragedy.
Google took a big step forward with the first iteration of Google Cardboard: that simple solution was able to democratize VR and make accessible to everyone. It was, however, a flawed product: too limited and too toy-ish.
Weeks ago rumors started to pour in -we just talked about it a few days ago-, and now it seems clear that Google will soon reveal a new piece of hardware that will be far more advanced and ambitious than Cardboard. It probably will be also a new step between the Gear VR from Samsung and the HTC Vive Pre/Oculus Rift.
According to the WSJ, the new headset from Google won’t be tethered to a smartphone or a PC to work, and that’s something that makes everyone question where will it get its content from. I assume it will have WiFi support, so you’ll have to connect to a streaming server: some kind of ‘VR version of YouTube’, if you will, with some kind of VR Android on it. Uhm.
We’ll see if that’s the case, but that future of an independente headset is quite difficult to imagine: a good VR experience needs a lot of power, and streaming those experiences is for sure really demanding. Interesting times for VR, that’s for sure.
The Google Cardboard project has been incredibly succesful on its primary goal: democratize Virtual Reality and allow nearly anyone to get a glimpse of what this trend is going to allow us to do.
Now that they have succeed in that, it seems Google wants to monetize that kind of market too. According to the Financial Times, Google will launch a new headset that will be similar to current Gear VR. That’s the right move for Google -given that they don’t abandon the current version- and will allow them to compete on market that will for sure have associated many opportunities to earn some money.
There are doubts, though. How many kind of devices will we have?
- Oculus Rift: the most expensive and -supposedly- the best to get the richest experience. (Gaming PC required)
- HTC Vive Pre: from what people are saying, this one is really starting to be a serious contender to Oculus’s headset. (Gaming PC required)
- Gear VR: that’s the cheapest way to enjoy a quality VR… if you currently are an owner of a Samsung high-end smartphone. We already discussed what are the differences between this device’s features and the ones Google Carboard has. (Samsung high-end smartphone required)
- Google Carboard: cheapest, most affordable way to play with VR and test if it can deliver what we expect it to deliver. (Any (capable) smartphone required)
From what we see, there will be a high-end and low-end for both segments: PC based and smartphone based. I guess for the time being the VR experience will be similar to what happens with regular games on the PC and the smartphone. If you want to enjoy a richer experience in almost every aspect -mobile games can be really addictive-, you’ll have to go for the PC experience. Mobile VR will be more casual, more of a testing arena.
So Google going for the high end makes sense. Hopefully being able to enjoy a better, more comfortable experience with (almost) any Android or iOS smartphone will push this kind of content even more.
Interesting times ahead.
As an owner of a Google Cardboard model, I had doubts about how Samsung Gear VR could really make a difference when the experience should depend more on the mobile phone than on the mobile VR glasses themselves.
In fact, to me the Samsung Gear VR weren’t nothing else than a expensive, pretty version of the Google Cardboard, by I was wrong. On a recent poll in Reddit, some users pointed out the big differences:
- Better optics
- Better field of view
- Better head orientation / tracking (custom sensor vs under-optimized phone sensors when you use Cardboard)
- Low persistence (reduced blur)
- Low latency (OS level changes in Samsung phones made by Oculus)
- High quality lenses
- Inbuilt ventilation ducts to prevent lens fogging
- More content
- A proximity sensor between the lenses so it waits for it to be on your head to begin (and when you take it off, it pauses)
- Built-in controls (at the right side of the goggles)
The difference is clear according to one of those users:
Cardboard is a toy, Gear VR is real virtual reality
And the recent The Verge’s review confirms that Gear VR’s experience is much more suited for VR fans. We’ll see how Oculus Rift performs -it should nicer, but also more expensive and you’ll need a powerful PC- but it seems Samsung has made a compelling case for affordable* VR here.
*Not that affordable considering that you’ve got to be owner of one of the “2015 Samsung GALAXY flagship smartphones” :/