VR Cinema 1: Google Cardboard

thefilmbook by Benjamin B2015 may well mark a turning point in the development of immersive, Virtual Reality Cinema.

This post is an introduction to the cheapest immersive cinema viewer: the Google Cardboard. My next posts will investigate production possibilities to create VR cinema.

google cardboard -thefilmbook-

Looking at Virtual Reality with Google Cardboard and a smartphone

1. Edison Kinetoscope
2. Oculus buzz
3. Google Cardboard
4. stereo and 3-D
5. 360 or ride
6. video VR


1. Edison Kinetoscope

Cinema was invented in the United States, and then France, at the end of the 19th century. Cinema involves both a camera and a screen. I’ll return to early cameras another time, but for now let’s focus on the screen.

Genius inventor Thomas Edison and his collaborator William Dickson first showed a prototype of their Kinetoscope in 1891, and then introduced the finished device in 1893 at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. Kinetoscope combines the Greek words for motion and view — it is literally a “motion viewer.”

A key thing about the Kinetoscope is that it is designed for a personal experience. It is intended for a solitary standing viewer, who peers down through two eye holes with magnifying lenses to watch backlit film frames. The Kinetoscope is a peephole viewer for watching a short film.

Kinetoscope Detail and Parlor -thefilmbook

Kinetoscope with door opened — Kinetoscope parlor

Edison’s invention launched an industry of Kinetoscope Parlors, storefronts where customers could watch a series of brief films for a penny or nickel each. The movie themes were simple: playful boxers, sensuous dancers, a muscle man, a cockfight, a barber shop, flying doves, a pillow fight …. It is said that Edison did not explore a public projection system because he did not believe it had commercial potential.

Inspired by Edison, the French Lumière brothers invented their own Cinématographe (“motion writer”), an elegant, lightweight camera that doubled as projector. In 1895, they organized the first public film projection with 33 spectators in a Parisian café.

Cinema screening soon evolved from Edison’s one-person viewing to the Lumière brothers public projection, and movies became a communal experience. In the 1950s, television added a home-viewing possibility on a smaller screen. At the beginning of the 21st century, Edison’s one-person screen is re-appearing on the personal laptop, tablet and phone.


2. Oculus buzz

The Oculus Rift is a head-mounted display system that was developed after a very successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012. The Rift functions as an immersive mask with a screen for each eye and a remote-control hand unit for navigation in virtual environments.

Computer scientist and philosopher Jaron Lanier coined the term Virtual Reality (VR for short), and in 1983 founded VPL Research, which developed goggles and data gloves that are the ancestors of the Rift. VR commonly refers to an interactive visual environment: typically the viewer can move his head or use a manual control to navigate through a landscape. Some VR is comprised of stationary images, while the most sophisticated VR offers a movie that the viewer can travel through.

In 2014 Oculus was bought by Facebook for a whopping $2 billion. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained that he sees VR as the next big technology, stating that “strategically, we want to start building the next major computing platform that will come after mobile.”

Janier is wary of the Facebook/Oculus deal, and commented that “whether the combination of Oculus and Facebook will yield more creativity or creepiness will be determined by whether the locus of control stays with individuals or drifts to big remote computers controlled by others.” In any case, there have been some interesting demos in the past year with prototype Rifts, ranging from games to interactive art projects.

Consumer Oculus Rift with Oculus Touch -thefilmbook-

Consumer Oculus Rift with Oculus Touch

The consumer version of the Oculus Rift is announced for early 2016, for a rumored price of about $200. However the Rift will require a hefty Windows 10 PC system for an estimated “all-in” price of some $1,500. The future system will include a Microsoft Xbox One control pad for gaming, in addition to a duo of Oculus Touch controllers.

Zuckerberg’s billion-dollar bet on Oculus has created a huge buzz for VR, and many other companies are developing VR hardware. For example, Samsung offers the Gear headset, and Sony is working on a system called Morpheus … and then there’s Google Cardboard.


3. Google Cardboard

The brilliant idea behind Google Cardboard is to offer cheap VR to the masses by using the existing tool that many people already carry in their pocket: the smartphone. Google Cardboard was invented in 2014 by David Coz and Damien Henry during their 20% “Innovation Time Off” at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris.

The smartphone, be it iPhone or Android, provides the screen and processing required for VR images. The cardboard kit creates immersive goggles by shutting out the light, and magnifying the screen with two plastic lenses.

google cardboard assembled -thefilmbook-

The Gmyle cardboard viewer ready to receive a smartphone
(unit is version 1 with circular magnet on side)

Most smartphones have several inertial sensors, which are used to create your interaction with the VR environment. A compass (or magnetometer) senses your direction, a gyroscope senses your head turning or tilting, and an accelerometer senses the speed of your head movements. All three data are used to synchronize the images you see with your head motions, creating the interactive feel of a virtual reality.

During Google I/O in May, it was announced that there were 1 million Cardboard users, one year after its introduction. Google I/O also unveiled Cardboard Version 2, which accommodates larger screens (up to 6″), and introduces a cardboard button to replace the side magnet control in version 1. Most important, the Google Cardboard SDK (software development kit) now works with iPhones as well as Androids.

If you have a smartphone, I urge you to go ahead and order a Google Cardboard kit to check out this cheap form of VR. The prices range from $5 to $30. (I got my Gmyle viewer on Amazon for 10 Euros plus shipping.) Version 2 of Google Cardboard is now becoming available, check the links at the bottom for buying options.


4. stereo and 3-D

Like other VR headsets, the Google Cardboard is a stereo device, with a separate image for each eye. This makes the device capable of 3-D stereo imaging, although it can also be used for simple 2-D.

stereo images on iphone with fincloud glasses -thefilmbook-

Left- and right-eye images from Jaunt’s 3-D movie of Paul McCartney in concert

The photo above shows how stereo is accomplished on the smartphone: the screen is simply divided into two images, one for each eye. In the case of 2-D the images are identical; with 3-D content the images are different. A pair of Fincloud glasses is shown here, but the principle is the same with Google Cardboard.

Immersive Cinema with a smart phone -thefilmbook-

Moe Shore peers through the two lenses of Fincloud glasses

There is some debate among VR proponents as to whether stereo 3-D is essential to Virtual Reality. I believe that it should remain a choice, as it is in normal filmmaking. The recent commercial failure of 3-D TV has demonstrated that 3-D is not for everyone, and, for some content, it might be good to give the viewer a choice of 2-D or 3-D. Other options include varying the amount of depth; many successful films offer “light” 3-D punctuated by dramatic moments with strong depth in the image.


5. 360 or ride

There seems to be two main movement options in the VR content I’ve seen: 360 or the ride.

Some VR allows you to explore the world around you by turning around or looking up or down from a stationary position. This form of 360 panorama can present a still-frame environment without a set ending, or place you in the middle of an event, like Paul McCartney singing a song. As we shall see in the next post, 360 is a real challenge to shoot. The most powerful 360 VR enables you to move from one position to another to explore the virtual world.

Other VR projects move you forward through an environment, like an amusement-park ride; you are also afforded some possibility for motion as you travel towards a programmed ending.

360-degree still-frame VR evokes the 1994 Quicktime VR format, which allowed you to create panoramas by stitching together images. A similar image can be created with the pano camera function in the iPhone. What Google Cardboard adds, of course, is the creation of a virtual space that you can explore with your head movements.

felixandpaul-strangers with patrick watson -360 thefilmbook-

A 360-degree frame from Felix and Paul’s Strangers with Patrick Watson project

The fact that you can only move your head remains a limitation of the Google Cardboard system. The addition of a continuous manual control, as with the Oculus Rift, would allow the viewer a greater range of mobility — for example, to move forward at different speeds.


6. video VR

One thing I have noticed in my initial research of VR footage is that there seems to be much more computer-generated imagery than camera footage. I believe that one of the challenges of cinematic VR is to offer some Virtual Reality without virtual images.

We shall look at some VR content in our next post, once you have assembled your own Google Cardboard ! :)


I thank my friend Moe Shore, director of advanced imaging at AbelCine, for his valuable help with this post.



Edison Kinetoscope
lomography.com: Thomas Edison and the Kinetoscope by plasticpopsicle
YouTube: Edison Kinetoscope Films 1894-1896

Oculus Rift
technologyreview.com : What Zuckerberg sees in Oculus Rift
forbes.com: Oculus Rift Consumer Edition: 5 Things We Now Know/ by Paul Lamkin
gizmodo.com: Here’s The Final Oculus Rift Coming In Early 2016
theverge.com: From Kickstarter to Facebook: the full Oculus Rift story

Google Cardboard
google.com: get cardboard Google’s overview
wikipedia: Google Cardboard
YouTube: Google I/O 2014 – Cardboard VR for Android
play.google.com: Paul McCartney by Jaunt inc.

youtube.com: 360
youtubecreator.blogspot : A new way to see and share your world with 360-degree video
in360tube.com: the in360tube app
felixandpaul.comStrangers with Patrick Watson
wikipedia: QuickTime VR

The Curious History of Virtual Reality by Moe Shore


Buying Google Cardboard

— Be careful to order a unit that is compatible with your smartphone screen size, especially if you have a bigger screen
— Android users need to have Android 4.1 (jelly bean) or later running.
— iPhone users should update to iOS 8.4
— My experience is that the side magnets used in Google Cardboard Version 1 to create a “click” don’t work well
— Version 2 Cardboard units are now becoming available, they replace the side magnets with a button, and accommodate larger screen sizes.
I recommend getting a Version 2 headset. (Check the image of the unit you’re buying, and make sure there is no circular metal magnet on the left, if there is it’s version 1. Version 2 has a button on right-and side instead.)
I will share my experience with V2 headsets as soon as I receive the units I ordered.

– hypergridbusiness.com:
a well-informed overview of current models by Maria Korolov

– Amazon.com
version 2 cardboard

– Amazon.com:
cheap version 2 cardboard ships from China

– Amazon.co.uk:
version 2

– tinydeal.com :
very cheap version 1 DIY cardboard for 4 to 5.5 inch smartphones

If you have any tips or experiences to share about getting Google Cardboard, please share them with us in the comments below !



  1. Graham

    Cool! myself and a director buddy of mine recently built our own oculus rift camera rig, made a short film called Real all shot for 360 oculus vision. It came out really cool. We also made a festival version of the movie shot on Epics. Its cool to see this new wave of display films coming out.

  2. Bil Leeman

    Great post thanks! a lot of people forgot too quickly about our history and how it impact us.
    You can also mention studios that are planning for the future of VR, The Third floor seems to be betting big on it. Now is it to allow directors or DP to “research” or test different angles for a shot or actually prepare for full length features in VR is yet to see.

  3. Pingback: The ASC: VR Cinema 3: Cameras

  4. Pingback: The ASC: VR Cinema 2: Image Spheres

  5. Luc Courchesne

    Comparing the Kinetoscope single viewer device (Edison) and the Cinematographe collective experience (Lumière Brothers) with todays head mounted displays and dome projections is nothing less than brillant. Thanks Benjamin to help us connect to a beautiful history of ongoing innovation.


Leave a Comment: