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Google Cardboard: VR that makes our clients happy
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Google Cardboard: VR that makes our clients happy

Why Google Cardboard is not just a poor person’s VR…

Looking back over the last 12 months, it’s certainly been a great year for us — our projects with Google Cardboard have certainly contributed.

Don’t bother with Google Cardboard IT’S DEAD!
A Friend - Jan 2015

So 2015 is almost coming to an end, and we’re just about to start 2 new client VR projects for the … Google Cardboard. WOW, if you’d said this at the start of the year, I’m not sure if I’d be shocked or totally unsurprised about that statement.

Since we first started experimenting with Google Cardboard in the Unity 3D game engine, I’ve always thought there’s great value in this, and it’s only going to get better.

However. VR as a whole, is THE latest tech bubble growing fast. I don’t need to go in to the history of how old VR is, it’s limitations and failures in the past.

With SO much money and such big players in the business now, no one can deny that 2016 will be THE year to kickstart VR again for the consumer. If the buzz is correct, the hardware will finally be here, it’s now down to the software developers to take VR to the next plateau.

The awesome VR community meeting up for the VR In a Bar event back in the summer.
The awesome VR community meeting up for the VR In a Bar event back in the summer.

The drive for the new era of VR has prominently come from the game industry, and with the new dedicated VR hardware about, I know Google Cardboard isn’t exactly regarded ‘cutting edge’. “It’s just a poor person’s VR”, “it’s just a bit of fun”, “it gives a hint of VR, but it’s not real VR”. Sure, maybe. But I use to hear the same about mobile games when smart phones were booming. At the time, with gamers being so used to console and PC gaming, mobile games didn’t cut it. In fact, games changed to fit the market and the hardware, now we take it for granted that there are loads of cool mobile games, and it’s a respected platform. Certainly for us, I think the same has happened with Google Cardboard apps.

I just want to make it clear, we’re not against other VR options, quite the opposite, we’re just as excited about the VR movement as anyone else. In fact in the new year we’re expecting to work on Gear VR and Oculus Rift for some of our other projects. People have written off Google Cardboard, but we’ve seen value and opportunities in the technology.

Why bother with an inferior technology?

Lets get real, Google Cardboard isn’t on par with the dedicated VR HMDs… of course it’s not, we’re not saying it is. Lets not focus on it’s weaknesses, we take advantage of it’s strengths. Limitations aren’t always a bad thing, they allow you to focus and put all your energy in what it does well. We’re not going to be making bleeding edge visually mind blowing power house VR experiences, in fact, it’s just not a requirement from our clients.

So what are we doing with it?

Of course, because it’s VR we DO want to be as immersive as we possibly can, we just have to accept long experiences aren’t great, input devices are limited, head/body tracking is currently a chore.

We are not making high end intensive action games here, we’re making serious games and experiences. So far we’ve found, experiences that are 3–5 mins long are perfect. This is usually enough time to place a user in a virtual environment and communicate learning objectives. Actions are simple in nature, we can get away with simpler environments, amplifying key points. Game mechanics are also simple which helps with frame rates.

Genuine value, Google Cardboard being used for a training workshop.
Genuine value, Google Cardboard being used for a training workshop.

Our target audiences have varied, from simple demos to experiences targeted for workshops, so picking the right mobile device and headset is important. Where we’ve had dedicated hardware, we’ve been able to optimise to the max. Some projects require more immersion than others, and that’s where comfort and clarity is important. I will talk about some of our projects a bit later on…

What do we take advantage of?

  • Accessibility
    VR in my pocket, (well, in my bag). When demo’ing, it’s something I can just slip in to my bag and head out without a worry. Just launch the demo on my phone, slip in to the HMD and away you go. It’s brought VR to people who just wouldn’t be exposed to the tech otherwise, at a show, on a train, in the pub!
  • It’s mobile!
    Yes, no wires. You can have the most mind blowing VR experience with say an Oculus Rift, but when you feel that wire on your shoulder, brain steps out of experience, bad times. Keeping the device on charge between usage and it works great. Interestingly, the displays on the devices we use have been clearer and sharper than some of the devkit/preview hardware for the bigger players.
  • Cost effective
    It’s nice that there’s a small range of options to fit people’s budgets. Starting at actual cardboard to better quality plastic/solid HMDs. Same goes for the mobile device, it would be great if we could use the latest handsets every time. Of course when 25 devices need to fit in the client’s budget, compromises usually are needed. Luckily mobile tech is getting better all the time, and the not so up-to-date handsets are still awesome for Google Cardboard.
  • It’s a team effort
    The majority of our team have great experience in making games for mobile. So we know the do’s and don’ts well to get the best out of game tech to perform well on mobiles. We use the Unity 3D game engine for Google Cardboard, again another of our team’s strengths.
  • Starting to settle down
    12 months ago when we started our first Google VR project, there certainly were a few bugs in the Unity Google Cardboard SDK. However, each update to the SDK has given fixes, wider range of devices (including iOS!) and slicker. A year on and we are working with a solid framework here. Bare in mind, we’ve been delivering final products to our clients, these haven’t been prototypes on devkit/preview hardware.

Commercial projects

Most of our Google Cardboard work has been sub-contracted to us, so for commercial reasons we can’t shout about every project we’ve developed :(, but here’s a couple of snippets…

City Demo

A very basic demo to expose new people to VR, it goes down surprisingly well showing at shows and in the pub.

Video gives you a quick look at the demo, you need to try it out to feel the full effects.
There’s no player navigation, but a handful of observation points and a mini story. Personally, I think the audio and subtle visual effects we’ve used make this a fun experience.

Warehouse health & safety

This is a good example of the types of products we produce. Demonstrating a typical environment where health & safety is key.

Warehouse VR — example of putting the user at higher risk to learn health & safety key points.
Warehouse VR — example of putting the user at higher risk to learn health & safety key points.

The player can navigate the scene by our own nav system of arrows around the environment. Gaze for a couple of seconds and you’ll walk towards the desired location. Various objects are also active in the scene, again, gaze for a couple of seconds, and in this example you’ll be given a health & safety question. The player’s movements and choices are collected via our own stats product, Statman (http://www.statman.co/).

Google Cardboard multi-player, yes we did it

We had a client requirement to have a multi-player scenario using the Google Cardboard. The obvious solution for us was to use the multi-player functionality built in to the Unity 3D game engine, and with only a couple of minor fiddly bits we got it working. Our final setup had 2 headsets (we could have had more), a PC acting as the game server, a separate network switch (this project required a private network and didn’t want to go through the internet), and we also were able to control the game settings and environment through a tablet.

It worked well because the players were stationary in the scene, however their actions influenced and were seen by all players. The other advantage was that the PC could show a window in to the game world, one of the usual draw backs of Google Cardboard is not seeing what the user is seeing.

Custom inputs

An interesting project came along where it needed actual custom inputs to control certain features. Existing gamepads and controllers didn’t quite cut the mustard, so a visit to Maplins, googling and out came the soldering irons.

Work in progress shot of us building our own Bluetooth HID talking to Unity 3D.
Work in progress shot of us building our own Bluetooth HID talking to Unity 3D.

We created a custom Bluetooth HID which directly controlled parameters in the Google Cardboard game. Another level of immersion was created, and worked really well.

Fun with Zombies

Even though our Warehouse health & safety product is regarded as ‘serious’, most people come out of the experience and say… “there really should be some zombies in here…”.

Oops, you weren’t quick enough! Now being eaten by zombies!
Oops, you weren’t quick enough! Now being eaten by zombies!

We listened, so that’s what we did. Sure this is a game game, and we’ve only just started, but nice to have a bit of fun from time to time 😉

The future?

What will happen? Who knows? Everything is so vulnerable at the moment. It’s the sort of technology you’d expect to die out sooner rather than later, especially when the larger VR players bring out their consumer units, price drops and everyone has one.

However, there’s a certain excitement around Google Cardboard, the accessibility is a massive factor here. Many devs can jump straight in to this and pretty instantly see results, and you can just take your product on the road. Even if the mainstream VR did dominate, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was an under current of Google Cardboard staying strong and supported.

For us, right now, we’re happy to push forwards with Google Cardboard, it fits with our clients needs and budgets. It’s fun to develop for, and we’ve improved our techniques over time. I definitely feel it’s not a waste of energy. Our skills will be transferred to whatever the preferred VR technology will be once the VR bubble has popped – where the weak fall and the strongest survive.

What do you think?

Are you using Google Cardboard for commercial projects? Is it a dead technology to you? Does it even have a future? I would love to know your thoughts!

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