Google product manager Mike Podwal was back home for the holidays and hanging out with his father, an artist. Years ago, Podwal’s dad had given him some original paintings as a gift, which Podwal had proudly hung on the walls of his living room. But father and son hadn’t seen each other in a long time—Podwal’s dad didn’t even know what his son’s apartment looked like. So Podwal decided to show him a photo.

But this wasn’t just any old picture. The photo was captured in 360-degree, 3-D virtual reality, allowing Podwal’s dad to immerse himself his son’s virtual living room using Cardboard, Google’s cheap virtual reality goggles.

“This was the first time he saw my home, and the effect his gift had on my life,” Podwal said during a recent meeting at Google’s San Francisco offices. “He was so moved. He kept saying, ‘Wow.’”

Starting today, anyone with an Android phone can start creating pictures like Podwal did. The Google Cardboard Camera app lets you snap your own virtual reality photos for viewing in Google Cardboard. Anyone who’s taken a panoramic shot using their smartphone already knows how to use this app: You hold your phone in a vertical position, tap the camera button, and move in a circle. The only difference is that, unlike regular panoramic pictures, you make a full 360-degree turn. A snippet of sound also gets recorded as you’re capturing the photo.

The result is pretty striking: a three-dimensional panorama where near things look near, far things look far, and you can look in front of you, to your sides, or crane your neck all the way behind you to see the entire captured scene. (The top and bottom parts of the image are, disappointingly, still empty.)

Unlike VR video, the elements in the picture aren’t moving; it’s a stillframe moment in time, enhanced by the natural sounds of the scene. It reminds you a bit of looking at a Snapchat—at least, that’s what it did for me—except it’s way more immersive. Though the scene is static, it still did feel like I had been transported into other worlds. During my demo at Google’s offices, I stood on a beach and squinted at tiny human figures backlit against the water’s horizon; I invaded a family campfire scene with recently put-out flames sending wisps of smoke into the air; I enjoyed the view atop Mount Kilimanjaro without the strenuous hike. It’s hard not to see this as yet another incremental effort in Google’s ultimate goal to own “democratized” virtual reality—that is, virtual reality that’s cheap and accessible to everyone.

Podwal, who was the first product manager to work on Jump, Google’s professional-grade virtual reality video platform, says the app was born out of a natural question they had while developing the original product. “What if we could let absolutely anyone create experiences for VR?” Podwal says. “How do we make this more universal and open?”

Clever Algorithms (But No Sharing)

Podwal worked with Carlos Hernandez, a software engineer from Google, to bring the kernel of that idea to fruition. Hernandez had a lot of experience in photography apps; he’d previously programmed a lens blur feature for Google’s regular camera app. The simulated blur cleverly used software to mimic a shallow depth of field effect on photos, making closer objects appear in sharp focus while further objects are blurred out—similar to how human eyes focus on one close-up thing and the rest fades into the background.

In virtual reality photos, smart software is once again deployed to recreate a stereoscopic effect. Basically, the app uses computational photography and computer vision to recreate the 3-D experience without a special camera. “It calculates 3-D,” Podwal says.

Cardboard Camera took about a year to develop, and as Podwal tells it, the team concentrated on just one thing: the act of taking the photos themselves. And the focus seems to have paid off: It takes only a minute or so for phones to output each picture, and the images publish in .JPEG—a common image format that’s compatible across most computers and smartphones. File sizes range from 4 to 10 MB or so—relatively small compared to the hundreds of megabytes of most immersive VR videos.

But the focus on taking VR photos means the app has left out one crucial feature: sharing. There’s no share button at all within the app—the only way for folks to let their friends enjoy their VR pictures is to actually hand them a Google Cardboard unit with the phone that captured a particular scene. That’s acceptable for now, since not every household has a Google Cardboard unit sitting in its living room. But with the number of owners creeping up higher after several clever promotions, Google will need to add sharing soon, which the company says will happen. Google also plans to support VR platforms other than Cardboard with the app.

Platform Limitations

But Google’s commitment to making VR accessible for everybody does come with some compromises.

“You can sort of say it’s a ‘common man’ VR,” says Brian Blau, an analyst with research firm Gartner who has studied virtual reality both as an academic and in the commercial realm. He points out that Cardboard—which relies on readily available tech like the smartphone in your pocket and a $5 viewer—doesn’t deliver the same quality you would get from a higher-end VR system. At the higher end, VR systems can be connected to a computer, take advantage of more advanced cameras, and often include higher-resolution displays. “You could say that exposing people to this sort of lower quality may somehow give people the wrong impression of what [virtual reality] can do,” says Blau.

At the same time, these compromises allow Google to get VR in the hands of as many people as possible—something that’s very attractive to another segment of the population Google wants to court: businesses. “I don’t think this push [into virtual reality] is all coming from Google. This is a pull from businesses, too,” says Blau, adding that brand tie-ins like the recent New York Times initiative can be helpful as a marketing tool, or to help extend the reach of a brand using pretty neat (albeit a little gimmicky) VR applications.

Either way, Google’s Cardboard Camera makes one thing clear: Google doesn’t want you to forget about VR. Not now, and not anytime in the near future. “You could say they struck gold with Cardboard and VR, because it could get into a lot of people’s hands,” says Blau. “And now, they want to keep it in front of people.”

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Google’s Cardboard Camera App Makes Anyone a VR Photographer