Google Cardboard Headsets – Cheap and Premium

It was inevitable that my purchase of a Ricoh Theta S 360° camera would spur me on to buy more tech. The big hand syndrome, where handheld pictures and video have an out-of proportion hand holding nothing (the camera having removed itself from the picture) was easily fixed by a selfie-stick/monopod.

But it also led me to play with Google Cardboard, which is a deliberately cheap design for a Virtual Reality headset. In particular, video taken with the Theta and uploaded to YouTube can be viewed using Google Cardboard, and as you move your head, the frame of view moves accordingly. It is an amazing immersive effect, even with the crudest resolution of video.

The original Google Cardboard was – and is – made of cardboard. It came as a punched sheet, which you folded into the headset. A mobile phone is inserted into the headset as the display, running software that splits the screen into separate parts for each eye, like a stereoscope; the headset also contains a pair of cheap lens, to enable you to focus.

Google were not interested in manufacturing the headsets – they left this to other companies to do. So a number of companies started churning out the cheap cardboard headsets; but it didn’t take long for a more substantial version to be produced in plastic.

This is the cheap headset that I bought on eBay for 8 quid.

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It works brilliantly. A cheap plastic sheet of mini-suckers in the front holds your phone in place effectively, and the whole thing is pretty solid, while being light.

There was only one minor problem. My face is quite broad, and I found that the foam surround, that nestles the headset against your face, didn’t quite clear the corners of my eyes. When I blinked, my eyelashes brushed the foam, which while not terrible, was irritating.

But having proved the concept to myself, I simply decided to buy a more expensive version. The Freefly headset is 50 quid, but better engineered, and has a fake leather face protector, rather than open foam. Before purchasing, I emailed the manufacturers, enquiring about the width of the face opening, and was assured I would have no problem. So I ordered a set before Christmas, from John Lewis Online.

When it arrived, I was very pleased – it came with a fitted case, and a Bluetooth remote control. It looked stunning.

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However, I soon discovered two things. The method of locking your phone in place didn’t work very well for my phone, which was too small (I eventually found the “minimum size” in the small print), I liked the plastic suckers of the cheap headset far better; furthermore, I had exactly the same problem with the eye surround – it still caught the corners of my eyes when I blinked

So the posh headset has gone back – fortunately John Lewis has a customer-friendly returns policy. I am persevering with the cheap headset. As it only cost 8 quid, I have no problem taking a knife to the foam that is irritating me – I reckon leaving foam along the forehead and cheeks should be more than sufficient.

Which just goes to show – expensive isn’t always better.

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