Why VR content investment in ‘a galaxy far, far away’ is just the beginning

Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB studio recently released virtual reality content for the official Star Wars mobile apps, marking the first time the beloved sci-fi property has dabbled in VR content. It definitely won’t be the last, either.

The new experience, called Jakku Spy, is designed for use with Google Cardboard. Jakku Spy is an experience in installments, and today marks the first installment’s release. New pieces of the Jakku Spy puzzle will be uploaded every few days leading up to the Star Wars: The Force Awakens release on December 18.

The first VR experience itself is short: You’re treated to the signature Star Wars crawl, which informs you that you’re a spy for the Resistance on the desert planet Jakku where you’ll be on the lookout for enemy activity. Then, you find yourself standing atop a massive sloping sand dune, surrounded by high temperatures and hot, dry wind. There’s plenty to see, but you’ll scarcely have time to inspect before a speeder whizzes past, weapons ablaze. A moment later, a few bleeps and bloops grab your attention and you’ll turn to find a looking small, helpful, and very round BB-8 with a message for you.

That’s it, really. It’s just a taste. It’s a chance to step onto Jakku, to look around, to take ownership of your own perspective within a created world. And for now, that’s how VR exists in our world — the “real” one.

Jakku Spy is made to be intentionally limited and short. It’s supplemental. It’s a bite-sized experienced, contained in something that many of us have access to: a smartphone. It requires no special equipment, no high-powered computer, no costly headset and no wires. Google Cardboard was designed around the core principle of accessibility. Headsets are often around $30 (though special edition Star Wars Google Cardboard headsets themed after BB-8, R2-D2, Kylo Ren, and a Stormtrooper will be for sale in-store at Verizon retail locations) and most Google Cardboard apps and experiences themselves are free.

In many ways, Google Cardboard is the world’s necessary first step into VR. One of virtual reality’s biggest challenges on the road to mainstream acceptance is access. You can’t know how utterly different a VR experience is until you’ve tried it for yourself, and words simply fall flat. Trying to describe what a VR experience is like to someone who has never tried it is like trying to explain the way the wind feels or what it’s like to see the ocean for the first time. And, if we’re being honest, Google Cardboard isn’t anywhere close to the best VR has to offer us. It’s light years away from Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive and even Samsung’s Gear VR.

But this, Google Cardboard, is our necessary first step. And the involvement of what is arguably the world’s largest film franchise is nothing if not a clear indicator of the future of VR and the extent to which Disney and Lucasfilm understand that for now, it’s important that everyone be able to experience Jakku for themselves, without the aid of early adopter equipment.

There’s more coming in VR. More content. More headsets. More frames per second, more time behind the lenses, more sound. Just more. There will, inevitably, be a time when we have long, standalone experiences in the headset. The technology is progressing, the demand is growing. But for now, VR experiences are supplemental. They’re short, they add depth and immersion to existing IP’s and experiences. There are opportunities for VR storytelling, but for now, introducing viewers to familiar characters and worlds through a new lens has proven an effective first step into VR.

In the announcement this morning, Rob Bredow, Lucasfilm’s head of New Media/VP, Advanced Development group said,

“ILMxLAB’s whole foundation and mission is about creating immersive entertainment, and that includes virtual reality. We think a lot of people are going to experience virtual reality in Google Cardboard for the first time with Jakku Spy. It’s a great opportunity because there’s this familiar content — characters and vehicles that you’ve seen in trailers — but you’re seeing it in a completely new way.”

Jakku Spy is meant to draw you in, to build anticipation for The Force Awakens, to introduce you to Jakku so that you feel like you know it and you must see it for yourself in theaters. And it’s working. Jakku Spy, much like most of the content in the Star Wars app, is meant to build the world of Star Wars. It isn’t long, and it isn’t standalone.

It doesn’t provide hours of interaction in the Star Wars universe, but it’s a start. And if the last paragraph of the announcement is any indication, that’s just what Jakku Spy is: Ultimately, Jakku Spy is the first step into a larger (virtual reality) world for Lucasfilm and Star Wars,” said the release. “And that’s something to be truly excited about.” 

YouTube jumps into virtual reality with Cardboard support

YouTube is breaking into virtual reality.
The service announced today that its application for Android smartphones now supports Google’s Cardboard headset. This means YouTube users will be able to select a virtual reality video, stick their smartphone into the headset, and kick back as the future of video consumption appears before their eyes.
“If we’ve learned anything in the past 10+ years at YouTube it’s that capturing and sharing videos is a great way to bring people there with you,” YouTube says in a blog post, adding that it’s supporting virtual reality because it “makes the experience of being there even more awesome and immersive.”
The service dipped its toes into virtual reality content earlier this year with 360-degree videos that allowed users to swipe their way around whatever was happening on-screen. This update, combined with the capabilities inherent to the Cardboard headset, promises a more immersive virtual reality experience.
But there’s another, larger change in YouTube’s announcement: The service has made all of its videos available to view in Cardboard. “You can now watch any video using Google Cardboard,” it says, “and experience a kind of virtual movie theater.” This gives YouTube the largest virtual reality content library.
It will face competition, of course. Facebook introduced 360-degree videos to its service earlier this year, and if its $2 billion acquisition of Oculus, plus its increasing efforts to provide all the media its users could ever want right from its website, it won’t take long for a full-on virtual reality experience to appear.
Video producers are just as excited about virtual reality. The New York Times introduced its own virtual reality app (which also relies on Cardboard) early this morning. Jon Stewart is reportedly working with Otoy, a startup known for its 360-degree video technologies, as he develops a new series for HBO. The Associated Press also released a virtual reality film with RYOT earlier.
All of which means that some of the world’s most influential publishers are racing to embrace virtual reality while the most popular video service and social network duke it out for control of the new market. If that doesn’t portend a momentous shift in how we watch videos, I don’t know what will.

NYT partners with Google to show newspaper subscribers the future

The New York Times is fast becoming an online publication that happens to print a daily paper, but that doesn’t mean it’s giving up on all the people who prefer to get the news from a stack of dead trees and dried ink instead of an app.
The paper has partnered with Google to offer that company’s virtual reality headset — which is really a glorified hunk of cardboard in which people can stick their smartphones into to get a taste of what VR can do — to its print subscribers. An app made to work with this headset will be available on November 5; the bundle of Google cardboard will be shipped to newspaper subscribers the following weekend.
This might convince some people to expand their subscriptions from the daily newspaper to the New York Times website and mobile applications. It’s also yet another way the publication will attempt to reward people who buy its paper, whether it’s by shipping this headset to subscribers or by giving newsstand customers access to its digital editions for a single day, without extra charge.
Both are win-win propositions for the Times. It recently celebrated reaching more than 1 million digital subscribers with a section dedicated to tooting its own horn. Increasing that number by convincing people to augment a print subscription with digital access or to sign up for the website after using it for a day will help the company’s revenues, image, and ability to thrive on the web.
But it seems like the New York Times is trying to keep its real, honest-to-god newspaper available for a while. That’s hardly a surprise: the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, has reported that print revenues accounted for 70 percent of the New York Times’ revenues in 2014. That could fall as ad revenues in the physical paper fall, but the printed paper is still an important product.
Catering to people who buy that paper is supposed to keep them interested in purchasing the New York Times’ moneymaker. Last week it was about giving people limited access to the website as a reward for buying from the newsstand; this week it’s about giving people a glimpse into media’s future, with Google’s help. What else might the company do to continue printing its newspaper?
It’s clear that the New York Times cares about its digital subscribers. These last few weeks have shown that it cares about the physical paper, too, even if it’s not quite as important as it was when the publication didn’t even have a website.

The new View-Master officially turns Google Cardboard into a toy

Mattel announced an update to its iconic View-Master handheld 3D-viewer toy in New York on Friday. The new View-Master was developed in conjunction with Google and its Cardboard project, and it turns the retro slide-viewer into a modern virtual reality headset.

Basically, the new View-Master is a plastic toy version of the Google Cardboard headset first revealed last June. Instead of inserting disks of stereoscopic images, as the original View-Master requires, you simply slip a supported smartphone into the headset, which will provide the gyroscopes, processor, and screen needed for immersive VR.

Besides the fact that it’s made from plastic, there’s going to be one major difference between Cardboard and the new View-Master: The main action button will be moved from the left-hand side to the right side of the headset, and has been turned into a “capacitive touch” lever, which better matches the historic View-Master lever you might remember from bygone years.


In fact, there are so few differences between Google Cardboard and the new Mattel View-Master that the demo I received was on a Google Cardboard headset with a mounted Nexus 5 phone, not the promised headset.

Mattel wanted to show off its new View-Master app, which will be available from Google Play this fall.  The View-Master app uses Google Cardboard APIs to produce immersive, interactive worlds, although much of the interactivity is still under development. Users will be able to buy experiences online, as well as in stores, in the form of “experience reels,” sold in packs of four for $15, which contain exclusive content you can’t download from online.


When in the View-Master app, you load an experience reel through a nifty augmented reality interaction. Taking advantage of your smartphone’s rear camera, the app passes whats in front of you to your screen. When your gaze falls on an experience reel, figures from that reel pop up into your line of vision. For instance, the San Francisco experience reel projects a polygonal Golden Gate Bridge. Simply click on the AR images and you’ll be transported into a 360-degree virtual world. I travelled to the moon as well as the time of the dinosaurs.

Mattel says there isn’t a social aspect to its worlds so parents can safely send their kids to the moon without worrying about the trolls that pop up online. The company is also conducting studies which certify that virtual reality is safe for kids as young as seven.

There are other Cardboard-compatible headsets not made from Cardboard. Other Cardboard headsets — like the recently-announced VR for G3 from LG — should be able to run the View-Master app as well, and the new View-Master will work with any Google Cardboard-compatible app. Mattel didn’t elaborate on which specific devices will work in the new View-Master, but noted it should be a lot of them, including big phones with 6-inch screens.

Mattel says that the new View-Master should be in stores by October, and will cost around $30 — not counting the smartphone you need to use it. Although Google Cardboard is largely exclusive to Android at the moment, Mattel and Google representatives confirmed that they’re working to bring it to iOS devices.

Although the new View-Master is directly aimed at kids (and nostalgic parents) its low price and wide availability might make it the Google Cardboard headset of choice for overgrown kids — early adopters and virtual reality enthusiasts.



LG announces a Google Cardboard–based virtual reality headset

LG’s high-end G3 smartphone was one of the first phones with a pixel-dense 2560 x 1440 display, and now LG is putting those extra pixels to good use. On Monday, LG and Google announced a new virtual reality headset for the G3, called VR for G3, that works with Google Cardboard.


Like Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s first Cardboard headset, LG’s new virtual reality headsets merely mounts the phone and a pair of biconvex lenses in front of your face. The virtual reality experience uses the device’s built-in screen, sensors, and processors in conjunction with Google’s software to deliver an immersive experience.

According to LG, the VR for G3 headset is based on the original Google Cardboard blueprint, and it works with the Google Cardboard app as well as other Cardboard-compatible apps and games. VR for G3 headsets will be free with purchase of a G3 for a limited time as part of a promotion, which also includes a free version of the VR game Robobliteration.

Aside from the G3’s 538 pixels-per-inch screen, which helps when your eyes are centimeters away from the screen, another major advantage the G3 has over other devices for VR is that its sleep key is mounted on the backside of the smartphone, as opposed to on the righthand side for most other devices, meaning that the button remains accessible even when the handset is mounted. Perhaps LG was thinking about virtual reality even before Google Cardboard was announced.

LG says they haven’t decided whether the VR for G3 will be sold separately or what it would be priced at. The promotion starts this week in Korea, and is eventually headed to the United States.



Google Maps for Android has a VR mode, thanks to Google Cardboard

Cardboard, Google’s virtual reality hobby that first launched as a kind of gag gift at its developers conference this year, has been making strides in the past month with new SDKs and a section of the Google Play app store specifically for Cardboard-compatible apps. And earlier this week, Google shared a relatively easy to peek at its large cache of Street View images on Cardboard through the Google Maps app.

The feature is somewhat hidden — for now. Quietly announced on Google Plus, the feature is currently only available for Android devices through the Google Maps app. To find it, you merely have to double-tap the look around button when looking at a street view. (The option to enter street view is available on the bottom-screen menu when looking up an address.) Google’s GIF explains the process well:


Even if you don’t have a [company]Google[/company] Cardboard headset — although it’s possible to purchase one cheaply from companies like Dodocase or even make your own — the feature will probably work on your Android device if you’ve got an up to date version of Google Maps. Double-tapping the look around turned regular street view into binocular street view on my Nexus 5, and moving my phone in space shifted what I was looking at.

One World Trade Center through binocular Google Street view

One World Trade Center through binocular Google Street view

The official Cardboard has supported some Street View locations since it launched, and there are several ways to get Street View working on Oculus Rift. Because Street View images can be so compelling and there is such a wealth of them, it could be one of the big sources of content in the early years of virtual reality.