Google I/O was light on new consumer products this year (and by "light," we mean there were none at all), but the company made up for the lack of marquee sizzle with some important under-the-radar innovations. While Google Cardboard is still, well, made of cardboard, the company's VR strategy is anything but paper-thin.
While companies like Oculus VR, Sony and HTC are moving towards big consumer virtual reality launches, Google is going about things differently. It boils down to a simple, innocent piece of folded cardboard, complete with two lenses, a smartphone and – now – a cardboard button.
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Our first reaction to Cardboard last year was that it was a Trojan horse. Get developers making VR apps for Android, using gear that can be made for next to nothing (or bought for just a little bit more than that), and only then, when developers have built an arsenal of apps and games on your platform, do you roll out the full-on consumer gear.
That could very well still be a big part of the strategy, but if it is, we aren't there yet. There's no official "Android VR" yet, but we are seeing phase two of Google Cardboard. It involves making what was already there simpler and more versatile, and putting it in the hands of people who can change the world. And in this case, those hands are small.
Google's Cardboard Expeditions is the company's plan to get Cardboard VR headsets in the hands of teachers, for use in classrooms. While most companies start with AAA consumer products, and eventually find a way to get said products into the educational market, Google is jumping straight to that point – letting teachers use the cheap headsets to take students on virtual field trips.
I went on one of those field trips today, during a demo session at Google I/O. We may have been a group full of developers and other members of the press, but for a few minutes we played the roles of kids taking a field trip to the Natural History Museum. It was a fascinating glimpse into the classroom of the future.
This "trip" consisted of 360-degree photos of various points in the museum: T-Rex skeletons, Alaskan Moose and the like. Our "teacher" (in this case, a Googler) talked to us through our headphones, indicating points in our virtual environments that she was talking about – through circles and arrows that popped up to nudge us in the right direction.
This kind of thing will get a lot more interesting when students get to explore moving virtual environments (i.e. 360-degree videos), but the potential here is obvious – and it's one of the coolest uses for VR we've seen yet. We hope schools don't use this as an excuse to skimp on real field trip budgets, but for cases where it's impossible for children to visit a given location, this is a way for them to feel like they've been there.
It should be relatively cheap too. Each Cardboard headset still requires a smartphone, but the Nexus 5's that were inside my class' headsets don't cost much these days – and it's likely Google will drop that price down further to make it even easier for teachers to get these into their classrooms.
Students may always find an excuse to distract themselves from class, and it's hard to say how much VR will change that. Virtual reality is an exciting new frontier right now, but once this is commonplace, will kids find it just as much of a drag as older generations' slide projectors and VHS documentaries? Like with those old technologies, the teacher's ability to deliver the goods in a compelling way may still be the most important factor.
Either way, we think Google's approach to VR is one of the most fascinating. Cardboard will eventually branch out into the kind of consumer gear that's on the horizon from Oculus and Sony, but there's something to be said for making the most dirt-cheap version possible, and using it in ways that can open future generations' eyes a little wider. Change the world first, make a hit product later.
You can learn more about Expeditions in both the product page below and the video right under that.
Project page: Google ExpeditionsView gallery - 5 images