Being in another world - not just looking at a place on a computer screen, but actually experiencing it, as if you're standing there.
That's the magic of virtual reality (VR).
Till now, it's largely been the province of clunky hardware, powered by high-strength processors. Expensive, and unattainable.
With a new app from Google that lets Android users transform their phones into VR headsets, this looks set to change.
You'll need to; but, more of that later.
Google's system, codenamed 'Cardboard', was a hit at the recent Google I/O 2014 developers' conference. It's so named, because the visor component which houses the phone can be constructed from simple materials. The aim is to create a low-cost platform users can assemble on their own.
At the conference, Google handed out pre-cut corrugated kits.
Cardboard comes as a single, flat sheet of cardboard which you fold up into a set of goggles. The only non-cardboard bits are the magnifying lenses, a rubber band, a magnet, and some Velcro.
The magnet slides in a little recess, and is used as a button. The phone's magnetometer (compass) picks up movement, and registers this as a button press. You can select different options by moving your head to point at icons, and navigate the virtual world.
Once you've put it together (which can take less than a minute, while watching the tutorial on the Cardboard site), you drop your phone into the back panel, Velcro it down, and go.
Without too much effort, you can even make your own headset out of:
· a pizza box or other corrugated cardboard materials
· a printable template available from the project’s Web page
· a pair of inexpensive lenses, to focus your vision and create the 3D effect, and
· a magnet and washer.
For those who don't want to build their own, companies are already assembling and selling kits, starting at around $25. 3D-printed versions are expected to follow, as the project is open source and Google says it doesn’t intend to sell headsets.
You hold the Cardboard box up to your face, and suddenly you're looking at a horizontal row of applications. To scroll back and forth, you turn your head.
You use the little washer that's held to the side, to click on things. Slide it down in its little cardboard slot, and it pops back up - rather like an old school view-finder.
The concept is more than a low-tech solution to mobile VR. It symbolises Google's approach to virtual reality: use the phone that's already in your pocket.
The basic mechanics are simple: use your smartphone’s screen to send slightly different images to your eyes. The shift in the image gives the illusion of 3-dimensional reality.
A similar system could be used to turn any screen into a VR headset - though the lenses would have to be tailored to the right dimensions.
Currently, only the Cardboard demo app is available on Android, from the Google Play store. For now, users can:
· fly around Google Earth and view 360-degree photos, using their cardboard-rigged heads to look around
· take a trip round Google Street View, in 3D
· view 3D YouTube videos; an interactive VR app, for viewing non-VR content
· tour the Palace of Versailles
· participate in an immersive animated short film
Other content is anticipated soon, as Google has opened the platform for developers around the world to create new features in app form via the Android OS, or on the Web, via Google’s Chrome browser and HTML 5.
The range of handsets that Google Cardboard currently supports is limited, mostly to Google Nexus handsets and the like. Future versions that support a wider range of devices are anticipated.
In fact, most smartphones are more than capable of driving Google Cardboard with an acceptable level of performance. Of course, the experience you get will vary wildly, depending on which handset you use. As phones become higher resolution (like the 2560x1440 LG G3), this should improve, dramatically.
The Wider View:
The virtual reality medium is splintering into two distinct futures: one of entertainment, the other of immersion.
Immersion (that feeling of being embedded in a 3D world, with no distracting hardware) is the province of the power players in the VR market. This means super high-res screens, high refresh rates (90 Hz or higher), and fast processors (i.e., actual computers, with dedicated graphics processing).
Rather than aiming for "immersive presence," Google's approach to VR seeks to provide an alternate viewing experience for existing content. Cardboard has been designed as an introduction to VR, for the mass market.
Google Cardboard and other mobile VR solutions look to offer a foundational experience for both the development community (who will be charged with creating the apps that actually make VR sing) and for mainstream users.
Want to See How It's Done?
The UK Telegraph website has a video showing how a Google Cardboard headset is put together. So, you can have a look for yourself.