Seen Google's '#Cardboard' Virtual Reality headset? It's pioneering stuff, but we've been speaking to someone who had a similar idea five years ago...
“At the time,” says tech journalist-turned indie game maker Andy Lim, “everyone laughed at me and said I looked ridiculous.” We’ve been talking to Andy about his virtual reality headset invention from 2009 – a cardboard prototype that pre-empted the new Google Cardboard project by half a decade, and that used the Vodafone-exclusive HTC Magic at its core.
But how and why do you go about making VR viable at home? And what’s the future of virtual reality now that Google Cardboard is in the wild? That’s exactly what we’ve asked Andy to find out.
Making Virtual Reality a reality
Missed the news? At the end of its recent I/O developer conference, Google presented everyone in attendance with ‘#Cardboard’ – a virtual reality headset made of the eponymous boxstuff, which uses an Android phone as the bulk of the hardware. Check out this video for everything you need to know:
Nice idea, but it’s not exactly new. In 2009, then journalist Andy Lim made exactly the same thing with one of our most iconic smartphones…
“At the time I was just very excited about the potential for VR using the gyroscope in the HTC Magic, which was one of the first phones to have one. I was playing around with Google Street View, in the mode where you could navigate by moving the phone around, and I thought ‘hold on a second, this is virtual reality!’
“So the next stage was building an enclosure for it, and it just happened that I had tonnes of cardboard at home because I’d recently moved house. So I made one first to test it out, and then I made one on camera for the video.” And the rest is history. Here’s the video in question:
“A few years later I left publishing and started making games, but at the time I was getting really fed up of tech journalists just rehashing stories from other sites or putting forth random opinions, and I thought we needed to be doing more, and making stuff and encouraging creativity in tech. That’s similar to what Vodafone does – they do stuff instead of just talking about it; they set up initiatives and they experiment.”
Design Deja Vu
“I didn’t actually see the Google Cardboard launch,” Andy says, laughing, “but I got about 20 emails the next day from people asking if I’d seen it, and saying that Google is making my invention. I thought they were having a laugh; I thought it’d be a proper headset, but no… It’s a literally piece of cardboard. So I sent a tweet cheekily to Google saying ‘Great idea, but any chance you’d seen my video from 2009?'” And as it turns out, they had:
“I wasn’t sure if Google actually had seen my design,” says Andy, “but one of the chaps who invented Cardboard replied, saying he’d seen my video three weeks before they launched because he was checking to see if there were any leaks.”
“In the video, the place that I go to with Google Street View was Paris, and the two engineers who invented Cardboard are from Google’s Paris office! It’s a pure coincidence, I’m sure, and there were others at the time. A week after I made the headset, for example, Apple patented a head unit that you could put a phone into. Ultimately though, anyone could have done it, I just happened to have done it randomly five years ago. It’s one of those classic situations where you have a similar idea to someone else and they do it better.
“I’m just pleased that this kind of thing is being done,” he adds. “On the day my reaction was just thinking how great it was that someone had come along and done it properly, because the cost of similar Virtual Reality solutions like the Oculus Rift are quite expensive. If all you need is a phone and a bit of cardboard then that’s great, and you can get an Android phone for £50 from Vodafone now.”
The next big thing
So what does our homemade VR pioneer think about the future of the technology?
“When I was a kid VR was this big idea that just never really took off – I remember growing up thinking Virtual Reality is going to be massive, but it never really happened.” But Andy suggests that that’s about to change:
“Oculus Rift came out before Google Cardboard, and I remember realising at the time that Virtual Reality was finally becoming real.”
“VR is about being immersed in technology,” Andy says in closing. “As an example, I know that they’re using it as a way of therapy to help war veterans who’ve suffered from trauma. That’s just one element of what it can do. It could offer lots of possibilities in healthcare and, perhaps not the most useful area but maybe the most obvious: gaming. I’m really excited about where it’s going to be in the next few years.”
What do you think? Is VR the next big thing? Will you be making a Google Cardboard or Andy Lim-style headset? Let us know your thoughts below.