There's one very simple rule in virtual reality development: don't make people sick. But when it comes to making suggestions instead of prohibitions, we're still formulating the guidelines for everything — sound, motion, interaction, even text. It's a problem that Google Cardboard designers Jon Wiley and Alex Faaborg are all too conscious of. Since unveiling the cheap Cardboard headset a year ago, Google estimates that over a million of them have made it into the hands of VR enthusiasts. At this year's I/O, Google is betting that it can turn a side project into a real platform for developers... and it's making a little tool that will show them (or anyone else) how to do it right.
"Over the last several months, we've been, as designers, really digging into what makes a beautiful, amazing design experience. We hit on a few things that are just basic guiding principles," says Wiley. "But one of the things that we figured out early on was that really the best way to learn or see or experience anything in VR, you really can't talk about it or just draw it. You actually have to be there." Thus was born Cardboard Design Lab, a simple VR app about building, well, simple VR apps. Plug your phone into a Cardboard-style headset, open the lab — created in partnership with design studio UsTwo — and you'll get a short guided tour through the best practices for virtual environments.
"You can't really talk about it or draw it. You have to be there."
This isn't going to literally teach you how to build in VR — for that, you'd need to pick up a guide to Google's software development kit. Instead, it demonstrates things like the best distance to place text (3 virtual meters, which is far enough to comfortably focus but not so far that it'll overlap with objects in the scene), the importance of smooth motion (jerky acceleration can confuse our vestibular system and induce nausea), and the use of light (which can subtly guide users in a 360-degree environment.) Some of this is basic game design, but other parts only make sense in a VR app. How else, for instance, could you understand how incredibly disorienting it is when head tracking stutters or stops working?
One of the goals is to familiarize people who know how to build an app but might find VR intimidating. "There are a lot of places where we think VR could be successful for existing 2D applications," says Wiley. A real estate app, for example, could use 360-degree photos to show off a location. Some of the company's own existing services are also moving toward VR. YouTube, for example, will support 3D virtual reality video created with its newly announced Jump camera setup. As of last year, Cardboard users could tour Street View locations. "We're definitely looking at ways we can take Google applications and make great experiences in VR."
"Cardboard experiences" and "VR experiences" aren't interchangeable, granted. The biggest difference between Cardboard and something like the high-end Oculus Rift is that users have to physically hold Cardboard at all times, so experiences are usually shorter and have lighter interactive elements. Its motion tracking is more primitive. But it's also a kind of VR that far more people will be able to try. Headset kits cost $20 to $30 and don't require much more than a little folding. Originally, Cardboard used a magnet "clicker" that only worked on some models of phones, but the new version uses a button that should be compatible with just about anything. (Sadly, that's not true of the Design Lab. The default Cardboard app might have launched on iOS yesterday, but this is Android-only for the foreseeable future.) And Google is launching a project called Expeditions that will make VR a more useful teaching tool; students can use the headsets while a teacher directs what they see from a tablet.
Faaborg and Wiley admit that there's a lot Google doesn't have figured out. Even Expeditions, a pretty straightforward concept, has one very important catch: the team isn't sure where the smartphones will come from, unless every kid happens to have one on hand. More details on that will be coming later. "The momentum is good, and the excitement is good, and that's very positive," says Wiley of the entire Cardboard project. "Where that leads, I don't know."
But the Design Lab highlights one of the best things about Cardboard: it comes as close as anything can to demystifying virtual reality. By taking the simple, low-cost headset mainstream, it showed everyone just how little it took to build an immersive world. In the same way, Design Lab can explain a little bit about why good experiences work — even to people who have no intention of building their own.