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Google Improves the World’s Cheapest Virtual Reality Headset

Rafe Needleman
Editorial Director, Yahoo Tech
Yahoo Tech

Google is continuing its push into the virtual world with a second version of Cardboard, its smartphone holder that converts any phone into a display for a virtual reality headset. The company also announced a new rig to hold cameras for creating surround video, software to stitch the images together into a cohesive VR scene, and a program to bring virtual reality “field trips” to schools.

At last year’s Google I/O conference, the company announced its clever Google Cardboard virtual reality smartphone holder. Essentially a fold-up box with two lenses in it to make looking at a phone inches from your eyes possible, it made a lowest-common-denominator version of virtual reality available for those who didn’t have or didn’t want to pay for a dedicated VR rig like an Oculus Rift.

Related: ‘Other Space’ Director Paul Feig: Virtual Reality Is No Joke

This year’s version of Cardboard has a few improvements, including a much easier assembly process (see the video) and a better button, for apps that require it.

Google’s Clay Bavor introduces the new Cardboard at Google I/O. (Photo: Rafe Needleman/Yahoo)

Cardboard still relies on a smartphone with specialized software to generate images, as well as a phone’s orientation sensors to move the image to match your head movements. With the right software, the effect is convincing, and frankly remarkable given the minimal price of the additional hardware required.

There are several companies making Cardboard headsets. Google has a list of them.

Who’s It for?

Holding a cardboard phone holder up to your noggin for VR hijinks is a great science experiment. But does it have any real-world use other than as a developer’s playground? Google thinks so: It has created a kit for schools that lets classrooms take VR field trips to anyplace you can show on a smartphone.

The previous version of Cardboard. It does the same thing as the new one, but it was harder to fold together. (Photo: Google)

The “Expeditions” kit for schools is, we’re told, a big box that contains a bunch of Cardboards, some smartphones, and an Android tablet for the teacher, who can drive his or her students’ Carboard headsets to anywhere that there’s a surround image to be seen.

I’m not sure if parents will like the idea of a classroom of kids with their eyes pressed up to smartphone screens (although I’m sure the kids will love it), but it actually is a clever way to get kids to interact with an on-screen presentation and increase their engagement with a lesson.

Making Virtual Reality

Finally, Google addressed the challenge of creating VR content. The company announced the Jump, a rig that holds 16 cameras (most notably those from its new partner, GoPro) in the right orientation to create surround scenes. Google also talked up its service to take the video from these 16 cameras and stitch them together into seamless virtual worlds.

Google will first make the stitching service, which it says “takes thousands of computers” available to select content creators this summer.

Your First VR Views Will Be on Your Computer

In advance of all of us having VR headsets (it will be a while), Google still wants you to be able to see the immersive worlds being created and recorded for VR gear. So Google said this summer YouTube will get support for the videos created with Jump rigs and assembled with its new software.

That will help raise awareness of virtual reality and might encourage some content creators to create videos that they might not otherwise. But it will likely still be a while before we’re all snapping our phones into headsets so we can immerse ourselves in online experiences.