THE DIY ISSUE
The week of September 7, 2014

How I built my own virtual reality goggles

By Mike Wehner

Virtual reality. The term alone conjures up images of massive, bulky headsets and machines so expensive that you’d likely need to save up for a bit to even consider purchasing one. But while our perception of what virtual reality means has largely remained stagnant, the devices we carry every day have gotten so powerful that they can transport you to another world with the help of something as simple as a piece of cardboard.

The idea

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Google’s Project Cardboard
—one of the only really cool things to come out of the company’s I/O keynote this year—is a simple kit that you can use to build your very own virtual reality (VR) headset, so long as you also have a compatible Android phone. With a few folds of the pre-cut cardboard form, a bit of velcro, and the help of two plastic lenses, it’s the cheapest route to virtual reality ever conceived. And it works fantastically.

The official Project Cardboard kit was produced in limited quantities and handed out at Google’s event, so your chances of tracking one down are pretty slim. However, a whole bunch of third-party companies have produced their own kits that are either identical or closely mimic what you’d get straight from Google, and they’ll cost you no more than about $20.

To promote tweaks and iterations on the design, Google has made the official templates available for download. You can cut your own headset out of any suitable piece of cardboard. But keep in mind that while the cardboard, double-sided tape, and velcro are probably going to be pretty easy to find no matter where you live, the pair of acrylic lenses required are going to be a bit tougher to come by. You can find them online easily enough, but the cost of the lenses and shipping are practically as much as an entire DIY kit from DODOcase or I Am Cardboard. I’d highly recommend buying the pieces in a bundle rather than spending more money while also having to do more work.

The build

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Once you get all the important bits you need, constructing the headset is a fairly straightforward affair. There are only three or four folds you actually need to make, and if you bought a kit, they’re already marked for you. It’s probably the easiest DIY project you’ll ever attempt, and there’s really no way to screw it up.

Pro tip: The instructions offered by the kits don’t mention this, but after building the headset, it’s a good idea to apply a small bit of superglue to the slots where the cardboard pieces lock into each other. This will prevent anything from slipping out during use and will give the flimsy material a much more solid feel, which makes the experience of using the headset much more enjoyable.

Next, you’ll want to get your Android phone set up and ready to serve as your virtual reality platform. This is done by downloading the Cardboard app from the Play Store. Once installed, simply start up the app and then slide your phone into the headset.

The only physical input you’ll have for your virtual reality adventure is a small metal ring on the side of the headset itself. You slide it down and let go, at which point your input is registered and the ring returns to its original position, thanks to the magnet installed on the inside of the headset. This mechanic is typically used for selecting items in the various VR applications available, though many apps make no use of it at all.

A new reality

If you’ve never used a virtual-reality device before, prepare to be surprised by just how peculiar it feels to peer into a tiny cardboard box and enter an entirely new world.

As someone who has used virtual-reality headsets that cost several hundreds of dollars, I can say that the Google Cardboard experience is not much different. You move your head, and the world moves in response to you. You can look up, down, left, and right—or spin around in circles if that’s your idea of fun—and your virtual eyes will act exactly as they do in real life.

The first thing you’ll see in the official Cardboard app is a floating menu. But this isn’t like any menu you’ve used before, because you’ll need to actually turn your head in order to see the various options. Looking from side to side, you’ll see a bunch of different features, and you make your choice by sliding the metal ring on the side of your headset.

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“Windy Day” simulation

I highly recommend trying the simulation called “Windy Day” first, as it will help you get used to the idea of looking around in a virtual landscape. You’ll see trees, falling leaves, and hear soothing music as you enjoy the completely digital new world that you now inhabit. Once you’ve looked around a bit, you’ll eventually find an adorable little mouse who is struggling to chase down his hat. It’s shocking how engrossing such a simple idea is when you’re made to feel like you’re standing right in front of the action, and you’ll be sad when it ends.

The future

Google’s one-time mention of Cardboard has spawned more than it could have possibly imagined. DODOcase—which was one of the first companies to jump in with its own DIY headset kit shortly after Google revealed Cardboard—revealed to The Kernel that the company has sold more than 17,000 of the VR kits so far.

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DODOcase DIY headset kit

The official Google Cardboard app is just a taste of the software that’s available for use with the headset. Thanks to the efforts of developers creating unique experiences not only for the Cardboard headset, but for other head-mounted VR devices as well, there are a ton of free apps just a tap away.

  • Shadowgun VR: This is simply a demo of the first level of the popular Shadowgun first-person shooter for Android, but it’s still absolutely amazing to see in action. You’ll need a Bluetooth game controller in order to really get the most out of this, but the gritty game world and creepy enemies are amazing to see in virtual reality.
  • Dive City Rollercoaster: Whirl around on your very own amusement park ride, complete with loops and plenty of high-speed turns. Be warned: This one might be enough to give you a bit of motion sickness. Trust me.
  • SpaceTerrorVR: Take a disturbing trip through an unexplored planet, and prepare yourself for a whole bunch of jump-scares and screams. If you want a virtual-reality experience that will really get your heart pumping, look no further.
  • Tuscany Dive: Enjoy a walk around a gorgeous Tuscan villa and take in the scenery. Stop and enjoy the flowers to chill out next to the water fountain, all from your couch. Think of it as a staycation.

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Tuscan Drive

And that’s really just the beginning. With such a minuscule barrier to entry—you can build your own headset out of cardboard, that’s about as easy as it gets—virtual reality is undoubtedly the next frontier for gaming and interactive applications.

The key is getting people to experience virtual reality for the first time, because it’s such a strange, new feeling that it instantly hooks you. That’s exactly what Google Cardboard offers, because it will teleport you to somewhere you’ve never been, and all for the price of a few cups of Starbucks coffee.

It’s something that everyone should try, and there’s no better time than right now.

Photos by Plugged in Golf and Mei Burgin/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman