Google Cardboard

Google Cardboard is one product that is making virtual reality more accessible. (Photo: Flickr user othree)

In November of last year, as I participated on a panel on virtual reality at IDFA DocLab, the new media program within the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, the matter of diversity in the field became a glaring issue when someone in the audience pointed out that the panel was full of men:

Danfung Dennis, another panelist, wondered aloud if this new medium would, like film and so many others, be dominated by wealthy, white men or whether there was an opportunity to hear from a wider range of voices. It was clear the industry has a chance to address not just diversity in gender, but race, geography, sexuality, educational background and wealth.

Then another question came from the audience:

After decades of virtual reality technology costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars with disappointing results, I thought $350 for an Oculus Rift developer kit seemed like a bargain. But that answer felt like a cop-out and has haunted me for weeks. It takes a lot for granted — access to a high-end PC and hundreds of dollars to spare. We can and should do better.

If we break VR technology down into its components and research sources for those components, could we build an accessible and inexpensive viewer? How low can we go? The technological advances that are enabling virtual reality to finally reach consumers come right out of the smartphones we already have in our pockets: small high-resolution displays, sensors to track where you’re pointing, a processor to interpret the sensor data and render the screen’s content. The only thing missing is a way to attach it to your head. But did you know the Oculus Rift DK2 is built with the screen from a Galaxy Note 3? It’s fundamentally a phone strapped to your face.

VR Head Mounts – $1.25

Handmade virtual reality glasses to be paired with a smartphone. (Photo: Floortje Zonneveld)

VR Stereobril: Handmade virtual reality glasses. (Photo: Floortje Zonneveld)

First, let’s look at the head mount itself, where consumer products from Oculus have received the most attention so far. The Oculus Rift is perhaps the most advanced, as it’s fine-tuned for high fidelity and low latency to achieve a best sense of presence in the virtual world. It may be several months before it’s commercially available and it’s not clear what it will cost, but the developer kit is a few hundred dollars and still requires a separate computer. The GearVR, a mobile virtual reality device developed by Samsung and Oculus, costs $350 and also requires a Galaxy Note 4 for another $700 or more.

We can do much better if we look to simple head mounts that work with a mobile device you may already own. The most prominent is Google Cardboard. It’s a design more than a product — Cardboard is literally a piece of cardboard scored and cut to fold into a box that will hold your phone, along with a pair of plastic lenses and some velcro. It’s a popular and simple concept, and Google has recently released an updated specification with a list of best practices and design improvements. There are a number of companies selling their own versions of Cardboard for around $15 to $30. You can make your own from a pizza box, but you still have to buy the lenses, supplies and, of course, the pizza. I’ve seen pre-made Cardboard for as low as $3.50 — you may find similar deals online.

If even Cardboard is too pricey, there’s one more design I’ve seen that’s even cheaper. I attended a workshop at IDFA run by Dutch artist Floortje Zonneveld, in which participants made their own head mounts, called VR Stereobril. We were each given a couple of pieces of balsa wood, a pair of lenses, an elastic strap, some screws, tools and instructions. Floortje said that when you allocate the cost of supplies across all the participants, the cost per person comes down to around 1 Euro. The result is not super comfortable, but then again neither is the Oculus Rift. And it’s a lot more fun.

  • VR Stereobril: Works with most smartphones, higher latency, handmade. $1.25 (plus tools)
  • Google Cardboard: Works with most smartphones, higher latency, cheap but not durable. $3.50 – $35
  • Oculus Rift DK2: 1080p, low latency, position tracking, for developers. $350
  • Samsung Gear VR: 1440p, low latency, only works with Galaxy Note 4. $350

Total minimum cost so far: $1.25

VR Content – Free (For Demos)

Screenshot from "Evolution of Verse"

A screenshot from Evolution of Verse, a 3 1/2 minute virtual reality short.

With all the hype about virtual reality coming out of Sundance in the last few days, it seems there won’t be a shortage of content for these devices, though it’s too early to say how much any of it will cost. Software for devices like Gear VR is likely to only be available through an app store, and we don’t know yet how much transaction fees will affect the price of content.

But almost all the content that’s out now is free, whether they’re Android apps or demos from new companies such as Jaunt. We’re ignoring bandwidth costs and assuming you’re not installing these apps from your mobile phone’s data plan.

  • Google Play Store: Android only; searchable by keywords but there’s no way to only search for VR apps; dozens of VR apps – $0
  • Oculus VR Share: Only for Oculus Rift, mostly Windows, some Linux and Mac; searchable by keywords and category; hundreds of apps – $0
  • WebVR: Supports any platform with a browser (Android, iOS, Windows, Mac Linux) on mobile/Cardboard, with Oculus Rift or fall back to 2d desktop window; not a lot of content yet and hard to find. – $0

Total minimum cost so far: $1.25

VR Displays – $45+

Motorola Moto G smartphone

Motorola’s Moto G smartphone is one of the cheaper devices that has the minimum requirements to experience virtual reality.

The critical component for experiencing VR is the display device itself. Many head mounts like Cardboard assume you already own a smartphone, which will handle the display, the tracking and the rendering all in one device. A phone can cost hundreds of dollars or at least require a two-year phone service contract, though we know from a 2013 Pew Research Center study, that most people already have smart phones, including 77% of young adults earning less than $30,000 a year. (See this report and this slideshow for more insight on low-income mobile device ownership.)

So how low can we really go for a mobile device capable of running and displaying VR content?

I looked at Firefox OS phones, a range of devices designed to make smartphones available in developing markets. Unfortunately, it looks like most of them lack the display resolution and processing speed for VR. An earlier version of the Google Cardboard site listed HTC One and Motorola Moto G as two compatible low-end Android phones. I was able to find a “certified pre-owned” Moto G for $45 without a contract, but locked to a pre-paid provider. A data plan is not strictly necessary as long as you can find a wi-fi access point.

  • Motorola Moto G: Works with Cardboard, 720p $45+ (locked to prepaid mobile plan)
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 4: Required for Gear VR, 1440p, optimized for VR. $700
  • Desktop PC or Laptop: Required for Oculus Rift, 1080p+ $1000+

Total minimum cost so far: $46.25

The Bottom Line

Technically, it is possible to access everything you need for virtual reality for about $50 if you’re willing to make some compromises. The experience will be below that of highest-end consumer hardware, but it’s enough to participate in the medium. And there’s every reason to believe those compromises will be mitigated in the next few years as mobile displays and processors continue to improve.

I can’t say I’d recommend spending $50 for virtual reality to someone whose budget may not already accommodate a basic smartphone for everyday Internet access, but it may make sense for a classroom or workshop like Floortje’s, where hardware can be shared or bought in bulk to bring costs down even further.

Experiencing virtual reality as a consumer is great, and it’s important that the opportunity is as widely available as possible. But it’s much more important that the field is open to creators as well. In my next blog post, I will examine what it takes to create virtual reality content on a microbudget.

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Brian Chirls is the Digital Technology Fellow at POV, developing digital tools for documentary filmmakers, journalists and other nonfiction media-makers. The position is a first for POV and is funded as part of a $250,000 grant from John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @bchirls and GitHub.