How to Build a Virtual Reality App for Cardboard

June 27, 2016 | Raj Srivastav

There are so many virtual reality projects out there that it’s getting pretty confusing. This is a pretty standard thing we’ve seen with the tech world: there’s a flurry of action as multiple companies try to figure out who will become THE VR/AR company.

So the current big players in the VR Game are Microsoft (HoloLens), Facebook (with Oculus Rift), and Samsung (Gear VR). Amazon recently began building a VR team for an unnamed project, and Tim Cook seems to have some sort of super secret VR division hiding in the wings.

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t mentioned the big one yet: Google. Google probably has the most currently invested in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality. They currently have two VR (known) projects in the works – Cardboard and the newly announced Daydream.

But since we are an app development company – and I am an app developer – we’re going to talk primarily about Cardboard today. Don’t get me wrong – Daydream seems very promising and just fantastically cool.

But we’re going to stick with reality (of Virtual Reality?) today – what can you, as an appreneur do right now to get involved in the VR app game? And that answer is Cardboard. If you want to read more about how developers will go about creating a virtual reality ecosystem for Google’s Daydream, click here to read Raj’s excellent analysis.

Just as a quick note – I’m not saying you can’t develop VR apps for Daydream, because you absolutely can. And there’s something to be said for early adoption, but Cardboard has a more established development process. I want to talk about the nuts and bolts of VR app development and design and Daydream hasn’t been around long enough to be meet this desire.

We’ve also talked about the the downloads and success of Google’s Cardboard – suffice to say Cardboard is successful (25+ million downloads, millions of VR apps for Cardboard; hundreds of hours watched etc). So what will we be talking about today? The actual technology and design process our team follows to make winning cardboard apps.

Planning & Conceptualization

As with any web, app, or custom software development project my team undertakes, the first stage is planning. We sit with our client to tease out what they want: what service or product are do they want to provide? How do they want to provide it? What are their end goals?

With a VR app for Cardboard, we know right off the bat that design will be even more critical than usual. First, virtual and augmented realities rely heavily upon visual elements. But more than that, there are a whole new set of challenges that developers have never faced before:

1. Head tracking: While this isn’t too different than how we use accelerometers with apps today, it’s different enough. With a VR app, head tracking is the result of users looking at different visual elements in the VR app. So, as designers we have to create an app that renders perfectly. Users won’t download an app that lags or blurs every time they turn their head.

2. Simulator sickness (aka Sim Sickness) is not something you’d normally associate with Android app development, but it’s long been a consideration for companies that make flight simulator programs for the Air Force. The issue here is a disconnect between what your body is feeling and what your body is seeing.

For instance, let’s say you want to make an Android VR app for Cardboard that simulates base jumping. You’re eyes will tell you that you’re flying through the air at speeds exceeding 100 MPH, but your body will tell you that you’re sitting in a chair. This disconnect generally results in users revisiting their lunch in unpleasant ways.

Eventually your body and mind will adapt to Sim Sickness. Research seems to indicate that prolonged exposure will at first make Sim Sickness worse, but months of prolonged exposure will allow your mind to adapt – again, eventually.

But my team doesn’t work in eventualities. We need to deliver successful products that get our clients users immediately, not eventually.So, one of our ongoing challenges has been to create a design that still provides the VR illusion but minimizes the mind-body sickness. The things we do to limit Sim Sickness include:

a. The more time a user spends in a single VR session, the more likely they are to get sick, so the ability to dip in and out of a VR ecosystem at will (without losing one’s place) is necessary.

b. While “Binocular Disparity” is one of the best visual cues have for creating a VR ecosystem, it’s also unsettling. Really, really unsettling. Our research and experience with Cardboard Apps (as well as that of the developers of VR apps for Oculus Rift) shows that reducing the disparity (not removing it entirely!) makes vomiting less likely while still maintaining the visual effect.

c. Acceleration is another big thing VR app developers need to consider. Trust me when I say that watching yourself accelerate without the physical sensation of gravity is disturbing. So, our VR app developers try to limit the frequency and speed of acceleration and of movement in general.

3. One other big thing I’ve emphasized with my VR app development team is that this is a new tech platform. We don’t have established systems so users have no expectation of how a VR UX/UI will look or feel. There’s no set visual clues or elements that guide a user through the app. So we have to create one, based off our prior experience – and iterative testing.

Build Your Own VR App for Google’s Cardboard with SDI

Building a VR app may seem like an intimidating process to many entrepreneurs, but you must consider that this is where the market is heading. There are literally hundreds of billions of dollars at stake here.

But the good news is that Google is really setting up excellent support for VR app developers. Their VR Apps SDK for the Plugin Unity is highly effective at eliminating common VR dev issues (like distortion correction or controls for faking head motions).

Unity is set or precoded features (like one sees with CMS and eCommerce platforms like Magento and WooCommerce) which streamline development and instantly leap over common hurdles. Unity is especially useful because it was made by Google for Google. In other words, it’s designed to work perfectly with Google’s base VR platforms.

Unity allows SDI to create VR Android apps for Daydream and Cardboard (making dual-platform apps all that much easier!). But more importantly, Unity lets developers create Cardboard VR apps for iPhone. This makes it an awesome tool for entrepreneurs who want to bring a more robust VR presence to iOS.

If you would like to learn more about how my development team can leverage the Unity plugin and Googles VR SDK, contact me today. You can also reach SDI by phone at 408.621.8481 or 408.802.2881. Get in touch soon for a free consultation and quote. Our prices start at $2000 an app!

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