For years, virtual reality has been lost in the weeds. The technology, which allows users to immerse themselves in a digital world, was popularised in the mid-80s – but at the time it promised far too much and delivered far too little. Since then, it's been the butt of jokes from across the cultural spectrum.
But virtual reality is coming back in a big way. Oculus Rift has got games developers excited, and there's similar efforts coming in the form of the Sony Morpheus and even an Xbox headset. But now Google's jumped into the action – announcing Google Cardboard, a DIY headset that can be built by anyone with a smartphone and some discarded cardboard packaging.
Essential reading: The best Oculus Rift games
Google's headset was released as a set of plans that you can use to cut cardboard into the right size and shapes. But you need a little bit more than just cardboard. A pair of 40mm lenses are necessary for your eyes to focus on a smartphone screen just in front of them, and a pair of magnets are used as a switch. Velcro and a rubber band holds your phone in place, while an optional NFC tag can automatically launch the Cardboard app.
Some of those components are a little tricky to get hold of – particularly the lenses. So a number of companies have started selling cheap-and-cheerful kits that you can order either pre-assembled or flat-packed. You can also order just the bits that aren't cardboard if you want. We ordered a flat-packed kit from a San Francisco company called Dodocase, which was one of the first to offer up a build-your-own Google Cardboard setup.
I love building things from instructions. I was a huge Lego fanatic as a child, and these days I leap at the chance to help others put together their Ikea furniture. As such, I wasn't expecting the process of building the kit to be difficult – but I wasn't expecting it to be quite as easy as it was. Put on the NFC sticker and the velcro, add some double-sided tape and sticky rings for the lenses, slot the lenses and the magnet into place then fold it all together.
Once built, the kit is sturdy and lightweight. It doesn't attach to the head – you'll need to hold it in place with your hands or attach some elastic of your own. But it works remarkably well. The cardboard blocks light out around the edges, while an interior divider stops each eye from seeing what the other is supposed to.
The magnetic switch is a particularly elegant bit of design. It uses your phone's inbuilt magnetometer, which detects changes in the magnetic field surrounding the device, to work out when you're trying to trigger something. Then, when you let go, it slides neatly back into place. Not all phones have magnetometers, however, so you can also use a strip of copper tape attached to one side of the device, which comes into contact with your touchscreen - a double tap on that will make the phone react as if it had detected a magnet pull.
The velcro holds the phone pretty snugly in place, but both Google and Dodocase recommend using an elastic band to hold it there and prevent any screen-smashing incidents. Getting it positioned right can be a little tricky - if it's even slightly misaligned then the 3D effect is lost and the image appears blurry. If you're having trouble getting it to look ok, shuffle your phone around a bit inside and see if that helps - when it's in place, everything will snap nicely into focus.
While it's reasonably robust for what it is, cardboard VR headsets are definitely a toy for early adopters and developers who want to play around with the technology. This won't stand up to an encounter with an excitable dachshund or disgruntled toddler. But it offers an extraordinarily low-cost way of trying the technology out - making it accessible to a much wider audience when combined with cheap smartphones like the Google Nexus range.
The NFC tag included in the Dodocase kit automatically opens the Dodocase VR app, which is an ugly-but-functional attempt to round up content in Google's Play Store that has VR functionality. There's a selection of apps, games and video, but most of it appears to be tech demos and test apps – rather than anything particularly meaningful. One, titled VR Toilet Simulator, lets you look around a dungeony-looking WC from the perspective of someone sat happily on a toilet seat. Watch out for the spider.
None of the rollercoaster apps thrill in the slightest, and nor do the outer-space shooters. Instead, the best applications of the technology can found in the official Google Cardboard app. You can view a gallery of leering tribal masks, explore Google Earth in 3D, watch YouTube videos in an enormous cinema, follow a mouse losing his hat on a windy day and – best of all – view photospheres taken with your device's camera or Google Street View.
It's hard to say why these replications of the real world work best in Google Cardboard. Perhaps it's because the technology to generate beautiful, compelling virtual worlds isn't powerful enough to cram into a smartphone just yet. Perhaps it's because the real thing is always going to be superior.
But my take is that it's early days for the medium, and no-one's put any of the simple-but-beautiful virtual worlds that already exist, like Minecraft and Proteus, into entry-level VR platforms like Google Cardboard. When that begins to happen, and it will, expect nothing less than a revolution in how we consume entertainment.