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Wearable Tech

Virtually there: How Google is readying VR for you

The search giant has a low-cost contraption made of cardboard that can turn any smartphone into a virtual reality headset. The goal: mass appeal.

Google's updated version of Cardboard works with any device up to six inches, including Apple's iPhone. Caitlin Petrakovitz/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 to Android devices.

The takeaway: Cardboard may sound cheap, but it's a powerful play for getting VR out to everyone and their 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 images.

Beyond its titular material, Cardboard uses off-the-shelf parts, included lenses, Velcro, a magnet and a rubber band, to create a makeshift virtual reality mount for your smartphone. James Martin/CNET

"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.

The fear is that if VR isn't a great experience the first time someone tries it out, it may poison public perception.

Doronichev thinks that while the experience is an obvious downgrade from wearing an expensive VR headset powered by a PC or game console, the overall impression is comparable.

"People still say, 'Oh my God,'" he said, mimicking the startled reaction of a Cardboard user as they hold the screen up to their eyes. Google is also shying away from experiences like gaming and intensive 3D imaging in favor of using its other services, like Google Maps and Google Earth, to take users to faraway places.

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To up the quality of the footage that will feature prominently on its Cardboard smartphone app, Google is partnering with GoPro to launch a service called Jump. That service will feature high-definition video captured by a camera rig, an assembler that turns raw footage into VR video and a player. The rigs include 16 camera modules mounted in a circular array, and users will be able to view the virtual reality videos on YouTube starting this summer.

"Jump is about capturing the world's places in VR video," Clay Bavor, vice president of product management, said onstage at Google's I/O conference on Thursday. "And Cardboard is about VR for virtually everyone."

Where Cardboard fits in

Virtual reality is fast becoming one of the most popular trends in the technology industry. Companies large and small have become involved, whether through research as Apple has, or through a high-profile acquisition like Facebook did last year when it bought industry leader Oculus VR for $2 billion.

But there's a problem with VR: It costs a lot of money. Oculus itself has said that in order to best use its technology, customers will likely need to spend $1,500 on both its headset and a powerful PC around or under $1,000 to display the complex visuals that make up these virtual worlds.

To ease the cost, Oculus partnered with smartphone maker Samsung to offer a headset called the Gear VR, a $199 headset that works with Samsung's top performing smartphones acting as the computer and screen. Others have followed suit.

Google thinks that by offering Cardboard, it can create an acceptable VR experience for little more than the cost of dinner.

"This is insane," said Elisha Ma, a developer for networking giant Cisco in Columbia, Maryland, as she marveled at the improvements Google's made to the design in the past year since Cardboard's initial release.

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Because Google made the schematics for its Cardboard headset freely available online, other manufacturers have created versions consumers can buy rather than building their own. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

Back then, it was quietly passed out to attendees at the company's conference, which was how Ma first tried VR. At the time, Cardboard was treated as a cheeky political statement about how easy VR is to pull off, rather than a testament to the company's commitment.

Now with the company's full-throated support -- Google has been hiring more aggressively in the past year for the project -- and additional tinkering, it's clear Cardboard is becoming a cornerstone of Google's strategy. "It's cheap, easy and anyone can do it," Ma said.

That's what's drawn Anne Canty, senior vice president of communications at the American Museum of Natural History. She believes virtual reality can remake the way museums present and preserve artifacts. Over the next decade, the museum plans to include VR in its Center for Science, Education and Innovation.

That's a far cry from when Canty was six years old, wandering around the museum's halls marveling at the 94-foot-long, 21,000-pound fiberglass model blue whale model now regarded as one of the museum's most treasured exhibits.

But could VR be a threat to the museum's real-world exhibits, diminishing the experience of seeing a famous artifact or site with your real eyes?

Canty isn't worried. "People who get acquainted online want to go more deeply," she said. With VR, which she expects to be a cornerstone of education in the future, more people may hunger for a real-life comparison between themselves and the museum's blue whale, for example. She views the introduction of VR no different than being able to seeing famous art and historical objects and animals as virtual bits on a computer screen when the Internet began taking off two decades ago.

For Google, Cardboard represents yet another way it can layer its Android software onto what may be the next important computing platform. But in line with the company's philosophy, Cardboard is still another small, experimental bet letting the company keep its eye on the tech as it evolves.

"I'm not yet convinced that this is going to be the next big thing for Google," said Lewis Ward, analyst and research director at IDC. He's also skeptical that VR is something you can use to augment other software and services, as an add-on.

"The experiences that turn out to be the killer app turn out to be the thing we haven't thought of," Ward added. The real success of VR down the line "is to bring something completely new to the table that you can only do in that medium."

Until then, Google's Cardboard very well may be the world's introduction to VR.