Hands-on: Google’s Cardboard Expeditions almost made me barf

Credit: Florence Ion

I don’t know if it’s because I’m deliriously tired or the fact that I don’t have the same stamina I used to. But I could not physically handle Google Expeditions, a Cardboard app that’s designed to take kids on a virtual-reality field trip to faraway places.


Look inside my Cardboard.

That doesn’t mean Expeditions wasn’t cool, though. I took part in the virtual adventure at the Cardboard booth on the Google I/O show floor. Scott Maxwell, formerly of NASA, author of the Mars and Me blog, and now an engineer at Google, lead the tour of Mars.

We were each equipped with Bluetooth-enabled headphones and Google Cardboard for the 20-minute demonstration. Maxwell narrated the tour through the headphones and controlled each of our Cardboards from a Nexus 9 tablet via what appeared to be the Photospheres application.

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This is Mars through Cardboard. Sort of.

The Expedition really isn’t much—it’s a 360-degree photo tour of Mars, and it’s hardly as immersive as the HTC Vive demonstration that I had back at Mobile World Congress. I couldn’t interact with the tour or deviate from it. In fact, any time I tried to move away from the narrative, an arrow would guide me back to where I was supposed to be staring.

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Scott Maxwell was a great tour guide.

All of the tour’s spinning eventually got to me. My eyes began to squint. My arm hurt from holding up Cardboard for too long. The unit itself—which had a Nexus 5 stuffed into it–actually got a bit warm over time. I had to take a breather before I could go on. 

Then I thought, “Is this what kids really want? To stare inside a box and spin around in a chair?” I don’t hang out with too many kids, but I do know that they’re hyper and full of imagination. Google Cardboard, bundled with Expeditions, might help take them further in their fantasies. I mean, I just went to Mars and stared straight at the Columbia Hills. My cynical adult brain was blown away by the fact that it looked just like Nevada. Imagine what a kid would think—how she could take the experience further. Maybe it would inspire her to become an astrophysicist? 

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Time to breathe. I might barf.

It’s unclear how Google plans to distribute the Expeditions kits, but I certainly hope they’re affordable for all teachers who want them in their classrooms. Cardboard Expeditions should never replace actual field trips, mind you, but I think they can be useful when a field trip just isn’t possible.

In an 8th grade classroom, for example, a discussion on American government could lead to a virtual tour of the U.S. Capital, where laws and bills are passed. Maybe that could inspire a kid to become a politician, and try his hand at saving the world. 

Sure, that’s an optimistic extrapolation. But I’m just glad that this time around, technology aimed at kids isn’t another video game, but rather something that can actually share knowledge of the world to those who can’t afford to leave theirs. 

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