If a genie granted me the ability to earn royalties on one technology that’s been developed over the past 100 years, I don’t think I’d choose VR, the smart phone, or the microprocessor. I’d be tempted to choose the ballpoint pen.
If ballpoint pens suddenly, mysteriously disappeared from the world, I think we’d be shocked at how quickly our culture devolved into Lord of the Flies style anarchy. Important documents would have to be signed with pencils and drug company representatives and real estate agents would be deprived of one of their most effective marketing tools. I’m pretty sure there’d be riots, wars, and cannibalism. I shudder to imagine a world without Bic.
Ballpoint pens are so ubiquitous that stealing them is pretty much legal. At coffee shops that still use printed sales slips, ballpoints are augmented with feathers, fake flowers, or other doo-dads to ensure that patrons don’t accidentally walk away with them, but even if you did, you wouldn’t get in much trouble. A ballpoint pen is such an unremarkable feature of our lives that we often don’t even know how they show up in our houses. Take a moment to pay attention to the ballpoint pens in your home and try to identify where each one of them came from. Do you know the origin story of that pen from some Las Vegas hotel? What about the pen stamped with the name of an arthritis medication? How’d this ugly chewed-on blue pen even make it into your junk drawer? You have no idea.
Sophisticated technologies that cost thousands of dollars grab all the headlines, but there’s something to be said for technologies that are cheap, simple, and useable. Take the Google Cardboard, for instance.
It’s a mistake to compare the bluntly-named Cardboard to the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift or to dismiss it as being an inferior product. While you press all three of these devices to your face, it’s really unfair to compare them. The Cardboard is a useful entry point that gives people a glimpse at VR’s potential.
Awhile ago, Tom Doyle of Endeavor One gave me a Cardboard that Google sent him as a freebie. I’ve been enjoying it with a new Android phone. Last night I showed my introduced my parents to VR for the first time, with the New York Times short “Man on Spire,” which follows filmmaker Jimmy Chin on a dizzying climb up 1 World Trade Center. My mom and dad finally got to witness this VR thing I’ve been blathering about for themselves, and both came away from it delighted and impressed. My mother, who spent much of her career as a grade school counselor, immediately remarked that this was going to be a powerful new education tool.
That’s the remarkable thing about VR–as soon as you experience it, you get it. The sense of potential comes on like a flood. When you see VR with a cardboard, you want to experience it on more sophisticated devices. It’s such an effective advertisement for VR in general.
I’ve just tapped into the free cardboard apps so far and haven’t even delved into the ones that cost money yet. Here are some of my favorites so far.
Afterlife VR, by Mind Travel
In this experience, you’re floating through visions of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. You start by hovering over an earth-like planet accompanied by an earwormy little electronic tune. Once you press the Cardboard’s button, you leap off the planet and ascend into a vortex, after which you appear in either Purgatory or a heavenly tropical realm populated by gigantic butterflies. Purgatory is a humdrum, blocky urban environment and is a level I haven’t really explored in depth yet because I keep falling beneath it into Hell. In this plane of flames and tortured screams you assume the role of some kind of demon that tosses throwing stars at amorphous blobs that represent tormented souls. This app is sort of a game, I guess, but to me it suggests the ways VR is going to tap into mystical and spiritual themes.
Adult Swim Virtual Brainload
This is what I was hoping that Virtual Reality would turn out to be–trippy, non-linear eyeball candy. This short film takes you through neon glyphs, an Escher-esque ride through otherworldly architecture, a seascape, and ends in a weird march of Fourth of July fireworks and patriotic iconography. I want to see more of this kind of experience.
Titans of Space
If you want to experience VR, you want to go to space. This is a cool introduction to celestial-themed VR. I had some trouble figuring out the UI, which isn’t all that intuitive, but it’s pretty marvelous to travel through the solar system and see the planets and their moons in relation to the sun and each other.
SNL Celebrity Jeopardy!
This Saturday Night Live sketch is available on the Within app and gives you the experience of sitting in the audience during a broadcast of the show. You see the cue card holders, and if you turn your head you can see the audience, which in this case is filled with celebrities since this was from the 40th Anniversary show. I’ve been a fan of SNL pretty much my whole life and I got a little charge the moment I felt like I was in 30 Rockefeller Center watching Will Ferrell as Alex Trebek.
Inside Abbey Road
This cool app invites you into one of the holiest inner sanctums in all of popular music, the studio where the Beatles recorded most of their music and Pink Floyd recorded Dark Side of the Moon. You can poke around, gawk at the gear, and imagine what it was like to be a Beatle walking down the stairs from the control booth to the recording room.
I’ve played with a couple dozen other Cardboard apps–games and films, mostly. I’m always up for recommendations. If you’ve been blown away by something on the Cardboard, let me know on Facebook or drop me an email.
The big-ticket platforms will continue their arms race of features and fidelity, but I hope that there is always a place in the world of VR for something as simple as the Cardboard. I can appreciate how this cheap technology is providing the next generation of VR creators with an easy way to imagine what’s possible. Someday maybe it’ll be as ubiquitous as the ballpoint pen.