Google's latest app can turn Android phones into VR cameras

The new Cardboard Camera app lets anyone be a creator of VR content.

While we're big fans of Samsung's Gear VR, Google's Cardboard is still the cheapest and easiest way to get your feet wet with virtual reality. With just a piece of cardboard, velcro, a couple of lenses and your handy smartphone, you can set foot on Mars or be immersed in a Paul McCartney concert. But what about capturing VR? You'd have to cough up huge amounts of cash for a crazy GoPro setup or something much more expensive. Or maybe not, thanks to Google. The Mountain View giant has democratized virtual reality once again with a new Cardboard Camera app that promises to turn your ordinary smartphone into a VR camera.

Available only on Android, the Cardboard Camera app essentially lets you take 360-degree photos, but with a twist. You tap the camera button and turn around in a full circle just like you would capture a panorama. But once you put the phone into Cardboard, those photos will magically transform into something Google calls "VR photos." The images are suddenly three-dimensional; objects in the distance are far away while close-up items seem so close you can touch them. What's more, you can also choose to record surrounding audio as you're capturing the panorama. And then when you're playing it back, the sound makes the 360-degree three-dimensional imagery feel even more immersive.

I tried out a preview version of the app a few days ago at Google's San Francisco office and I was very impressed at how simple panoramic photos could become 360-degree 3D images. Taking a VR photo was as easy as taking a regular panorama -- simply tap the camera button and follow the arrow as closely as you can in a slow and steady pace. Then I placed the phone (with the app enabled) in a Cardboard viewer, and was able to see the same photo in all its 3D glory. I also viewed some VR photos captured by Google employees; one particularly compelling example was of a scene on Mount Kilimanjaro. In mere seconds, I felt transported to chilly mountain peaks with the sound of the wind whipping around me.

Mike Podwal, a product manager for Cardboard, tells me that the app is able to transform those panoramic photos into 3D via some computational software and the same stitching technology used in Google's Jump VR platform. I did notice some slight aberration located where the panorama begins and ends, but Podwal says the team is working on smoothing that stitching out so that it looks cleaner. To be fair, the lack of aberration also depends on the photo you're taking -- if it's of something that's moving, the chance for jagged edges increase dramatically.

As for what kind of phone you can use it with, pretty much any modern Android smartphone should be compatible, according to Podwal. The Cardboard Camera app is available starting today on the Google Play store in 17 languages.