I’m aiming a gun at balloons floating through a room. Zap. Zap. Zap. Pop. Pop. Pop. My head is stuck in a VR headset, but my hands aren’t using a video game controller, or even one of those fancy motion remotes from HTC or Oculus.
I’m holding a piece of paper that’s accurately dubbed a PaperStick. When I’d printed it out five minutes ago and and folded it up like a triangular tube, I honestly felt pretty silly. Here I was, a grown man, finding a USB cable, digging around for paper, making sure my inkjet still had ink left, all to print myself a piece a toy laser gun that, itself, resembled some cheap advertising that might be slipped below my car’s windshield:
Looked like a blast.
Then I slipped on my Google Cardboard headset, loaded the $2 Poppist VR Android app developed for the experience, and held the PaperStick where the phone’s camera would see it. Suddenly it transformed in my field of view into a digital weapon. I could tilt and aim the gun as if it were a real object. And pressing my thumb against the "AT" button pulled the trigger. Pop. Pop. Pop. Those balloons were dead.
Featured recently on Prosthetic Knowledge, PaperStick is being tracked by the camera, its large typography working much like one of those QR code-style gimmicks, where you look at a magazine cover or a dollar bill through your smartphone or computer’s webcam, and all of the sudden, it’s layered with 3D digital information. This sort of augmented reality was all the rage about four years ago—Sony even released a PS3 game based upon the idea called Eye Of Judgement—but this sort of augmented reality never caught on as anything more than a marketing gimmick because the interaction was so awkward: "Oh, so if I just hold my magazine up to my computer like this, maybe I could…" It simply makes no sense to look at a real object through another screen, because all of the satisfaction you get from real objects—direct manipulation—is once removed by your phone or tablet.
With PaperStick, I get a taste of what all of these silly augmented reality experiments could be when virtual reality moves that tablet screen from your hand and places it onto your face. Suddenly, any old piece of paper can be any object you imagine, held, swung, or thrown with satisfying tactility. Consider how you could print out a simple circle that your headset could transform into a colorful palette dripping with oil paints, or you could hold a random deck of Magic of Pokémon cards, but they’d come to life with real animated monsters in front of your eyes.
PaperStick has a lot of limitations. For one, it doesn’t work consistently. The PaperStick gun constantly disappears from your hand as tracking is lost. The South Korean developer Ko Jong-Min works independently, and it’s reasonable to assume that a larger team could iron out that kink. It also only recognizes gestures it can see. What do I mean by that? Well a more formally shaped PaperStick gun couldn’t be fit with a trigger because the camera wouldn’t see you pull it. That’s why its controls force your thumb to tap a virtual button in its view.
In fact, these tracking issues have led the developer to re-design his PaperStick in the days since I first sat down to write this article. Now, the stick is no longer a stick but a larger sheet of paper. Undoubtedly, this makes tracking all of the type easier. But from a design standpoint, there's no longer any grip to hold, which kind of defeats the point. Without a grip, it's less immersive; you're just waving around a flapping piece of paper more like one of those magazine gimmicks. We hope Jong-Min finds a happier medium as he plays with his invention.
But that shouldn’t make the deeper concept of PaperStick any less promising. High-end VR experiences can place virtual paintbrushes and bow and arrows into your fingers in a pretty convincing way—but these cost thousands of dollars and require custom hardware to get running. PaperStick demonstrates that technologies like those cheap old QR codes that were good for nothing but silly promotions might soon serve a real purpose—to create dazzling new interfaces in our hands and before our eyes for nothing more expensive than a little bit of ink.