Virtually there: How Google is readying VR for you

Google’s updated version of Cardboard works with any device up to six inches, including Apple’s iPhone.James Martin/CNET

Google has an ambitious plan for the future: help nearly anyone with a smartphone to experience virtual reality.

The technology industry is preparing for an onslaught of new devices that mount on your head, immersing you in computer-generated worlds ranging from space battles to Spanish villas.

The trend is called virtual reality, or VR, and the technology is moving from science fiction to store shelves within the next year. Once thought of as a gimmick from the early ’90s, VR is now one of the hottest markets in the tech industry as low-cost components and powerful software have made replicating the real world easier and more lifelike.

As it happens, some of the biggest companies in the world are staking out a position offering the highest-quality devices, capable of displaying complex imagery and inserting users in a digitally created world that feels like our own.

Google? It wants to help everyone else.

The search giant will do this with a product called Cardboard, a simple device made from Velcro, a button, some lenses and folded cardboard. The project was first announced at the company’s I/O developer conference last year, but Google returned to this year’s show with an updated version that works with devices whose screens measure up to six inches diagonally. Google also showed off a new version of its Cardboard smartphone app. Perhaps the biggest change: Cardboard and its apps will work with the iPhone, in addition toAndroid devices.

The takeaway: Cardboard may sound cheap, but it’s a powerful play for getting VR out to everyone and teir mother.

VR for the masses

All told, the device costs less than $20, a fraction of the $350 or more that most high-end headsets are expected to command. The trick: Your smartphone is both the engine and the display, sliding easily into the front of the contraption and viewable through a pair of off-the-shelf lenses.

For Google, this is business as usual. The search company has made its name by offering technology and software broadly and at little or no cost, inspiring millions of people to flock to its products. It’s how the company helped make its Android software for mobile phones the most popular in the world. And for the broader industry, Google’s Cardboard could be the device that introduces VR to people from rural India to downtown San Francisco, all while companies like Facebook-owned Oculus, Sony, and others design expensive headsets requiring powerful hardware to generate 3D

“In many ways what’s going on in VR is similar to what happened in mobile seven years ago,” said Andrey Doronichev, product manager for VR apps at Google, referring to the earliest days of Android. Google hopes Cardboard will do what low-cost Android smartphones did back then: quickly make technology available to billions of people.

With Cardboard, Google can “introduce an incredible amount of people to VR in a relatively inexpensive way,” he said.

Yet critics of Cardboard say it could undermine the industry’s attempts to attract the broader public. Since the last major attempts to sell VR almost two decades ago, enthusiasts have warned against overhyping the technology and selling it before it’s ready.

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