Google (GOOG) has helped millions get their first taste of virtual reality through its Cardboard VR initiative. And Google’s chief game designer Noah Falstein, who has been making games since 1980 for companies like LucasArts, 3DO, and DreamWorks Interactive, believes Cardboard is opening up new opportunities for independent game developers.
“With a million Cardboard units out there, a big company looks at that and thinks about getting 10 percent penetration and 100,000 units and those aren’t very big numbers for a company the size of Ubisoft or Electronic Arts,” Falstein says. “But for an indie studio, that actually could pay for their full development costs. And if you get the serendipity of something like a Flappy Bird, sometimes a very inexpensive and quick development cycle can net disproportionately large response and a lot of attention.”
With more expensive alternatives like the mobile Samsung Gear VR and Zeiss VR One devices also available, Falstein sees Cardboard as a great entryway for people interested in checking out what VR is all about. Users can purchase the cardboard-based device for $15 to $30 or download free instructions and make their own version, which turns any Android smartphone into a simple VR device.
The upcoming 2016 consumer launches of HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Sony Morpheus have created a lot of excitement around VR, but Falstein believes it’s an experience that needs to be tried to really comprehend its capabilities.
“Because you hold it up to your face like a pair of binoculars, it doesn’t feel as enveloping as some of the larger headsets do, so it’s less oppressive to people, less threatening,” Falstein says. “Also, it’s design doesn’t let you tilt your head very quickly back and forth, which practically eliminates any motion sickness problems.”
Falstein believes one growth opportunity in Cardboard VR for game companies of all sizes is as an outlet for gamers to connect with the virtual game worlds while away from their console or PC.
“These are enormous worlds with lots of 3D content, and having inexpensive mobile VR version either as a promotional or spectator modes that don’t require as much processing power could be ways for some of these bigger companies to use the investment they’ve made in these 3D worlds and get it to a lot more people very quickly and effectively,” Falstein says. “There are wonderful applications for VR that are going to be synergistic that way, and will help push the technology forward and give us larger installed bases for people to play games on, even if they originally got the system for work or for some promotional purpose.”
Since this latest wave of VR is still in its early experimental stage, Falstein believes games will remain at the forefront of VR development.
“Games won’t be the only use in VR, but because they are very flexible and more tolerant of bugs and problems than commercial uses, they’ll be the leading apps,” Falstein says. “Games are very important on smartphones, but certainly far from the only application, and probably not the most important application to a lot of people. It will be similar with VR over time.”
Falstein says both Cardboard and Tango (Google’s mixed reality project) are still part of Google proper, so there have been no changes in the wake of the recent corporate restructuring under Alphabet.
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