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Google I/O – five things we care about: virtual reality

Man with virtual reality glasses

At the recent Google I/O conference, as expected the search giant showed off the next version of Android, Android M, which is expected to arrive sometime in the autumn. But amongst other things, the company also focused on virtual reality (VR) viewers (Google Cardboard) and a new 360 degree camera rig for filmmakers in collaboration with action cam company GoPro.

After years of stagnation, the virtual reality (and augmented reality) industry is undergoing something of a renaissance. Companies such as Facebook-owned Oculus are gearing up for consumer launches of new hardware – Oculus just demoed its latest hardware and controller this week, in fact. Meanwhile, Sony has its Project Morpheus VR headset that works out of the box with the PlayStation 4, and HTC has developed its Vive system in conjunction with games company Valve.

Virtual Reality

It seems that virtual reality is ready to finally become a mainstream proposition, at least in terms of gaming. But Google has done something clever, which is turning anybody’s mobile phone into a screen that slots into its virtual reality headset – Google Cardboard. That means millions of people can experience simple VR without having to fork out hundreds of pounds on an expensive new device.

But what happened to Google Glass? While Glass was not strictly a virtual reality headset, it did enable computer-generated overlays onto the real world. The project was taken back into semi-retirement recently under Nest Labs’ Tony Fadell (ex-Apple, and credited as one of the inventors of the iPod), but the device is supposedly still under development with eyewear company Luxottica. Hopefully, this means that the glasses will eventually appear almost indistinguishable from regular eyewear, as that seems to have been one of the barriers to adoption – bulky, somewhat nerdy spectacles that made it quite obvious that you were wearing Glass.

Google Cardboard

Google Cardboard Virtual Reality Viewer

At Google I/O, Google announced its latest version of Cardboard, which will fit larger phones (up to 6 inches), and it’s also eliminated the magnet controller, instead using a cardboard button that works with every phone. It is also easier to assemble.

But more significantly, Google has also launched the Cardboard virtual reality app for iOS, allowing iPhone users to explore cities, and view 3D objects in a museum. On Android at least, the app has already been downloaded well over a million times, and developer have also been able to create their own Cardboard-compatible apps.

The idea of a cheap, throwaway virtual reality platform is interesting – why buy expensive VR headsets, when you can have a great experience with your existing smartphone and a specially designed cardboard box? Granted, it’s nowhere near the level of immersion and interaction that can be achieved with the ‘proper’ VR headsets, but it’s a great way to introduce the technology to consumers.

Google Jump

Google Jump Virtual Reality Camera Rig

Google realises that in order for virtual reality to become mainstream, there needs to be lots of fantastic content, and at Google I/O, the company unveiled Jump.

It’s a new platform for filmmakers to create 360-degree VR video, that can be uploaded to YouTube and then viewed on a Cardboard headset.

A special camera rig contains an array of 16 cameras, optimised to work with something called the Jump assembler. That’s basically the computing engine to convert the video clips into a single one, so that you can be immersed in the scene. As you would expect, it’s a challenge to stitch together 16 distinct videos into one.

Google has teamed up with action cam company GoPro to develop Jump, resulting in the camera array that holds 16 GoPro Hero 4 cameras, all shooting stereoscopic VR video. The cameras basically act as a single unit, recording in sync and using common settings for each device.

Google has not yet announced the price, but said that videos shot with jump will start to become available on YouTube this summer.

I don’t expect virtual reality to become truly mainstream in terms of every day use for the majority of consumers, but the technologies are applicable to a host of industries in medicine, engineering, and research. And for gamers, VR increasingly looks like the future for immersive experiences that can’t be delivered any other way.

The next few years will certainly be an exciting time for VR and augmented reality hardware and applications.


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