I purchased a Google Cardboard recently. If you’re like some of my friends, you may be wondering when Google started to sell boxes and why would I want to buy one. But Google Cardboard is not just any cardboard box. Sure, it’s made from cardboard but it’s also designed to be an inexpensive virtual reality (VR) system. By slipping in a smartphone loaded with special VR apps, Google Cardboard becomes a window into an alternative, three-dimensional world. Think of an updated View Master view finder. Instead of looking at still images, however, Google Cardboard allows you to look up and down, sideways and watch specially recorded video. It’s a pretty novel experience.
The consumer virtual reality marketplace is on the verge of becoming pretty competitive in the next six months. Early next year, the Oculus Rift will be introduced. Started through a Kickstarter campaign, Oculus Rift is hoping to position itself as the gold standard of consumer virtual reality. While Facebook recently purchased Oculus, the Rift will not be cheap and will require specialized computer hardware and software to operate. Google Cardboard is something different entirely. Released last year, Cardboard was designed to be inexpensive and run on a smartphone. Despite its adoption by companies like Volvo, the New York Times and Mattel, Cardboard isn’t the only smartphone VR system in town. Samsung is also offering a Gear VR to run with its Galaxy smartphones. Recently, the Gear VR sold out on Amazon and Best Buy within hours of its initial release. The Gear VR sells for $99.
Unlike the Gear VR, I purchased my Cardboard on Amazon for $16. A few days after my purchase, I received a small envelope in the mail. I don’t know what I was expecting to receive but Cardboard is literally a piece of cardboard with parts to fold and slots to insert. I have to admit that I wasn’t very impressed initially. I really couldn’t believe that a virtual reality system could be built out of such meager materials. But that’s by design. Following the simple directions, I had my Cardboard built and ready for viewing after a few minutes of folding and tucking. I own an iPhone 5s and had downloaded a few of the recommended Cardboard apps prior to receiving the device. I slipped my phone into Cardboard and began watching dinosaurs walking around. I also was able to visit the Eiffel Tower and attend a U2 concert. My nine-year0old son enjoyed playing a target shooting game where he aimed by moving his head around. Despite my initial disbelief, Cardboard was pretty impressive. Sure, some apps worked better than others and some of the images were a little distorted. But it’s made out of cardboard. And it only cost me $16.
Cardboard made me think a lot about the educational applications of virtual reality. I can see virtual reality as an option to help students experience processes that are impossible to view in real-life. With a VR headset, a student could visit a volcano, tour the universe, navigate the atom or travel back in time. More than these examples, however, I see real opportunities for students to participate from a distance in learning environments. Recently, the local news featured a story of a kindergarten student who was participating in class virtually by using an iPad. The student was undergoing cancer treatments and technology helped him participate in the class and stay connected with his peers. Possibly, down the road, students could use virtual reality headsets to be more fully integrated into the learning process. With the inclusion of inexpensive and easy to use options like Google Cardboard, I’m sure we’ll see tons of educational applications down the road.