Every year I love Google’s April Fool antics. In previous years we have seen things like Real cloud storage, AdBirds and Squirrel Chromecast. With only a single backfiring prank so far this year, they have been living up to people’s expectations so far. While all Google’s pranks (and many others) are based in humour, I think that sometimes these jokes have the potential to speak to something a little deeper.
A couple of years ago Google released the Google Cardboard which was to allow people to have a cheap and easy way to start experiencing VR. Naturally it took off. Not quite to the moon or to the meme, but it certainly forged a niche and a new market was born.
We have seen more of these phone enabled headset appear all around the place since. The most threatening of the competition is the Samsung Gear. However, the last 3 to 6 months has seen the greatest forward momentum in the VR space. Rather than being augmented units which couple phones and boxes, we now start seeing dedicated complete headsets. The Oculus Rift is heading out to customers and the HTC Vive has started processing all its orders. The PlayStation VR is also not too far away. The Microsoft Hololens is looking to explore how we can combine the real with the digital. We are moving closer to the time where we can put on a headset and move towards a truly immersive experience.
So what is it about the Google Cardboard Plastic (GCP)? What is it that makes this product and joke an interesting observation on the state of gaming?
For some context, this device has been specially crafted to help take people beyond virtual reality and into actual reality. It is wireless, battery free and lightweight. It has full life integration. It can work with both analogue and digital time, it can go anywhere! Not only that, it gives you up to 20/20 image quality with full 360º vision and true surround sound. Google has also been kind enough to put together a great video explaining the nature of the GCP.
Historically there are many games that have made it their goal to not just approach the uncanny valley, but to get across. They have tried to make games as realistic as possible while still projecting it just as an image on a screen. While many games succeeded in creating an immersive environment by using this technique, they were still limited by both the presence of the screen and the abstract input techniques. (More widely known as controllers). These restrictions are being lifted with the help of various motion sensitive controllers which are being offered alongside the major VR headsets.
This is where I find that the GCP reaches out to illustrate a good point, how mundane should VR titles be? Should there be titles which aim to replicate reality? Is replacing or supplementing movement outside for movement inside a good or a bad thing? I fully support the idea that VR is a space for the extraordinary experiences, things that cannot be replicated in real life. I do however think that these are important questions that we must ask.
I think, that in part, this joke goes out to provide a reminder to people that while a VR title may replicate in the digital what is possible in the physical, does it harm or hinder? The GCP is all about getting people to go out, to pass up the digital space. It is a reminder that there is a whole world beyond the monitor. It is a reminder that the real world still has some of the best multiplayer experiences that exist. It is a reminder that we should all get out there and enjoy them.