We went to Google headquarters in Silicon Valley to find out how a piece of folded cardboard is leading the virtual reality revolution.
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It’s lunchtime at the Googleplex and groups of employees are cruising down the streets on their signature colourful company bikes, one of the many free perks here. The headquarters of one of the world’s most powerful companies used to be just one building but now it has become a vast landscape of several dozen huge buildings spread out over endless ever-expanding office parks. Today’s Google campus resembles an entire slightly futuristic city. Last year Google created a new parent company called Alphabet, to reflect the fact that the well-known Google products are now only one part of their wide range of projects. The name also says something about the level of ambition here: the company basically wants to reinvent our language for communication and understanding the world. They want to create a brand new digital alphabet. One step on that path is virtual reality (VR).
“Rather than being a complicated fancy designer product, cardboard is charmingly simple.”
The weather here in Mountain View in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley is perfect, as always. There’s a clear blue sky and it’s warm enough to take off your jacket for lunch. But Leandro Graciá Gil prefers to stay indoors, developing new ideas for his employer, playing video games or exploring Google Cardboard, the instantly successful virtual reality headset that he personally developed here at Google two years ago. Graciá Gil’s background in game development plus a childhood spent in front of video games were also helpful for imagining the future of Google Cardboard.
“A lot of the skills that are useful for creating games are also useful for developing VR products,” he says. “Still, Cardboard’s focus isn’t only gaming, since many others do that better. We want it to change everyday experience, like teaching. And it’s a new way to share your memories.”
Exactly what is Google Cardboard? It’s a inexpensive, basic but surprisingly great headset for experiencing virtual reality – an immersive 3D experience that basically feels like stepping right into a movie. Rather than being a complicated fancy designer product, Cardboard is charmingly simple. It’s literally just a piece of cardboard with lenses that you fold to make a headset. It is easy to assemble, made for the masses and intended to be an introduction to the world of virtual reality. As a lo-fi alternative to Facebook’s expensive Oculus and Samsung’s mid-range options, Cardboard headsets can be a gateway to a new form of entertainment and media for millions of people.
“I was in New Zealand on vacation recently and when I came back I could show my whole family what it felt like being there. They could walk around on the same beaches I walked on and even hear the seagulls. The only thing missing was the smell of the ocean.”
People in the tech industry have been talking about virtual reality being on the verge of a big breakthrough for several decades. They’ve mostly been wrong. But now it finally seems to be happening. Facebook got a lot of attention for buying the VR company Oculus in 2012 for two billion dollars. Last year, they finally presented Oculus Rift, a high-end headset for truly magnificent VR experiences. When I first tried it out last year, it felt like being a kid and going to the movies for the very first time. Samsung, HTC and several other big tech companies have also recently released mid-range VR headsets, showing their shared certainty that 2016 is the year this will finally become a mainstream product.
Here in Silicon Valley, the heart of the American tech industry, business analysts are now predicting that products in the VR ecosystem will generate more than 30 billion dollars in annual revenue. I ask Graciá Gil why virtual reality, after so many years of optimistic promises from the industry, finally seems to be taking off.
“It’s about technology finally catching up to what we want to do. VR technology used it to be very expensive but now we already have 3D graphics technology on the phones in our pockets. That was unthinkable 20 or even 10 years ago. Another big improvement is what we call latency technology, that is, the time difference between the movement of your head and the movement of what you see on screen. It used to take much longer for the screen to adapt but now it’s just a few milliseconds, thanks to better gyroscope technology and better screen refreshing technology. They are really crucial because if the gap is too log between the movement and the screen adapting, the user gets nauseous.”
Many of the popular virtual reality headsets are expensive and require a lot of technical know-how. But Cardboard is affordable, simple and accessible. Just like many other successful Google products – the search engine, YouTube or the Google Maps app on your phone – it can easily be used by everyone with a smartphone. Your kid and your grandpa will be equally excited about it. You simply place your smartphone in front of the cardboard frame and it becomes a kind of 3D video screen. You control it by turning your head or using a small button on the side of the Cardboard frame.
“When I take the glasses off he looks at me with a smile, ‘you had your mouth open the entire time!’”
This also fits in with the general philosophy of Google. Instead of trying to compete with hundreds of other tech companies on fancy hardware (like they did with the failed Google Glass), they can provide a platform that enables users and third-party developers to create their own products. This also reflects the original spirit of Silicon Valley, where internet culture was originally all about sharing and openness – values that are often lost in the increasingly competitive race for quick money in today’s tech world.
“Our goal was to create an entire ecosystem around Google Card board by bringing people in and letting them contribute themselves, the same way we did with YouTube. It reflects the culture of openness here at Google,” Graciá Gil says.
Google Cardboard has become a success, shipping more than five million units since it launched. There’s also a Cardboard app, which is basically the software you need to have on your smartphone to be able to use the headset. Cardboard-compatible apps have been downloaded more than 25 million times, signalling that a lot of people are sharing their Cardboard headsets. More than a thousand apps have been built specifically for use with Google Cardboard. The most popular ones are games but there are also immersive travel experiences and clever educational apps. According to Google, 750,000 photos have been created with the Google Cardboard Camera app.
Last year the company shipped thousands of Google Cardboards to schools across the United States. The purpose was to use an app called Expeditions, which was launched as “a virtual tourism application” aimed at schools. It’s basically a way for school children to travel the world while staying in their classroom.
“Say you have a lesson about China? The kids can use Expeditions to travel to the Great Wall and experience what it actually looks like. If you study the universe, you can go to Mars and actually feel like you’re walking on its surface. You can go to the Great Barrier Reef, Machu Picchu or Versailles without leaving the classroom. For a lot of kids who maybe can’t afford to travel, that’s a great opportunity to enhance their education.”
Leandro Graciá Gil was tech lead at the Google Cardboard project, working 24/7 for two months straight in order to present it at the tech event Google I/O in 2014.
I’m meeting with Graciá Gil in one of the many new buildings on Google’s vast campus. This new office is entirely dedicated to VR and Google Cardboard. In a conference room with big windows facing the spring landscape of Silicon Valley, Graciá Gil hands me a Google Cardboard headset to demonstrate some of the fascinating features. I start taking a trip around the world. By simply moving my head around and touching the clever little button on the left of the Cardboard, I am able to zoom out from Mountain View, California and fly across the planet, dipping down wherever I feel like it: Mauritius, Stockholm or Istanbul. I can travel the streets, the beaches, or the country roads of Texas and it actually feels pretty close to the real thing.
When I take the glasses off he looks at me with a smile.
“You know, you did the same thing that every person I have ever showed this to does. You had your mouth open the entire time!”
He laughs at me for looking like a five-year-old trying out his product. In my defence, this reaction seems to be the same no matter whether the person trying Cardboard is five or fifty years old. Farhad Manjoo, the tech critic of the New York Times, recently wrote about his four-year-old son trying Cardboard for the first time: “I ’ve never seen my four-year-old react in amazement to tech, he’s used to everything. And then I let him try Google Cardboard. His mind was blown.”
Graciá Gil grew up in Spain and speaks English with a Spanish lilt. He has pale skin and long brown hair with a centre part. Timid and soft-spoken, he resembles the stereo-type of the friendly Silicon Valley hacker. He was recruited to the main Google office here while working at the London office. He was assigned to a team in Google Research and shortly after started contributing to a project in Google X, the laboratory where Google experiments with projects that are still under wraps.
“My team saw the potential of making a VR product and we wanted to make sure we got it done in time for Google I/O 2014, our annual developers’ conference. This meant we only had two months to finish the whole thing.”
The futuristic Google campus in Mountain View, California, where tomorrow’s ideas are born and developed.
Google I/O is one of the biggest annual tech events in Silicon Valley and is attended by all the top tech journalists, developers, entrepreneurs and hot shots on the Valley tech scene. So Graciá Gil felt the pressure as he worked 24/7 with his team to go from concept to real product, app and software development kit in time for the conference.
“We had to keep it all secret until the end but people knew we were working on something cool, so at the keynote of the conference, everyone was expecting us to present something really special. And then we went up on stage and said ‘so, today we will present you with a piece of cardboard’. And everyone went ‘Huh?’”
An American newspaper reporting from the event wrote incredulously: “While Google hosts its annual developer conference, all the excitement is about...a new piece of cardboard?” When people realised this was one of the first VR headsets aimed at mass consumers, they understood that it was in fact a pretty big deal.
“In the end we managed to produce 10,000 Google Cardboards for the 6,000 attendees at the conference, so everyone could get one. And because we put all the details of how it was created online, everything was open and everyone could make their own version of Cardboard.”
Only a couple of hours after the conference, the first company started selling Google Cardboard products and their own custom Cardboards. With the looming success of virtual reality, many of the leading minds in Silicon Valley are predicting a transformation of the tech industry as we know it. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, believes that VR posts will eventually overtake videos and photos as the most common media shared on the Facebook News Feed.
I ask Graciá Gil to envision where this technology will go in the future.
“There is so much we can’t even imagine yet,” he replies. “Our motto is that we always try to under promise and over deliver, so that people will keep using cardboard with their mouths open, just like you did.”
TEXT MARTIN GELIN PHOTO DREW KELLY