Cardboard

No, Google doesn’t manufacture their own type of cardboard boxes. So what’s this Google Cardboard you keep hearing about? Google Cardboard is the name given to their low-cost DIY Virtual Reality headset. But what exactly is Google Cardboard, what does it do, and should you buy it?

What is Google Cardboard?

It all started at Google I/O 2014, where a small piece of cardboard was placed under the seats of each attendee, unbeknownst to them what it was capable of. This was around the time that the only substantial player in the VR space was Oculus with their Development Kit 2 VR headset, and a hefty price tag to go along with it. VR was seen as a highly complicated, technical, and an engineering accomplishment, which took a ton of research and elaborate hardware.

Enter Google, who then showed up and made their own VR headset out of nothing but a piece of cardboard cut into a precise shape, 45mm focal length lenses, a few magnets, some velcro, and an NFC chip, that houses your Android device, with all the necessary VR functions being handled by the accompanying app. The Google Cardboard app splits the smartphone display into two images, one for each eye, whilst applying barrel distortion to each image to counter pincushion distortion from the lenses.

So seemingly from the outside, Google Cardboard could offer a VR experience, at a fraction of the cost of the competition. Even third-party developers started to embrace Cardboard, with Volvo releasing their own branded Google Cardboard kits in November 2014, and Mattel using Cardboard as the basis for their 3D View Master product in February 2015.

On January 27, 2016, Google announced that in the 19 months since Google Cardboard had existed, over 5 million viewers had been shipped, and over 1000 applications published with Cardboard support.

Cardboard isn’t a single product, it’s a platform

Merge VR

Part of the magic of Cardboard is that it isn’t just one headset, it’s an open platform. Google merely creates a spec, currently at version 2.0, and allows individuals to build their own. There are also tons of companies that have taken the Cardboard spec and given it a serious upgrade, adding new materials (plastic, foam, etc), straps so you don’t have to hold the viewer yourself, and even a few options have added buttons or additional controllers/remotes.

In the end, that means you can get Cardboard compatibles for as little as a few dollars if you build it yourself, or as high as $100+ if you can a high-end model that’s made of solid materials and has a bunch of extras added on top. Regardless of which Cardboard viewer you choose, they all have one thing in common: they require a Jelly Bean or newer Android phone in order to fully take advantage of the Cardboard app ecosystem.

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Buy Google Cardboard V2.0 VR Source Edition ($12.99 Amazon.com)
Get the official VR Source Google Cardboard, perfect starter to try out VR for the first time.

There’s plenty of other options, of course, including more expensive ($60 to $100) options like the Merge VR. You can hit up the link directly below for more details.

See also: Best Cheap VR headsets

Build Google Cardboard yourself

Would you rather build the Cardboard yourself, as opposed to buy it? No worries! It’s actually pretty easy to do. For some tips on how to build your own, be sure to check out the video from our sibling site Android Authority. If you’d rather read instructions, you can find them here.

What’s the catch?

Before you jump in and go and get yourself a Google Cardboard, let’s consider the drawbacks of the product, and the reason it is so affordable.

While Cardboard dips people’s toes into the world of VR, it is only that – an introduction to a VR viewer, and a very basic one at that. Google Cardboard can, in some instances, have a negative impact on users and their sense of vision. Without elaborate head movement tracking to map real-world movement into the view of the virtual world, it can be very easy to feel nauseous quickly when using Cardboard.

When executed perfectly in sync, the result is a truly immersive feeling of being part of the virtual world, but this doesn’t always happen. With Cardboard there are no special sensors on board, with the phone’s hardware doing all the magic, and therefore you can only track head orientation with Cardboard, not position, which can cause an imbalance in the inner ear and motion detection, causing that sickness feeling.

The result? Google Cardboard is great for short bursts of fun to show your family and friends the concept of VR, but if you’re interested in taking VR seriously and putting some serious hours into it, then you’ll need a higher-end headset.

What are some of the key games and apps?

(above is a sample of the kinds of games you’ll find compatible with Google Cardboard)

Let’s be honest, the quality of games and apps can vary significantly for the Google Cardboard. Unlike Gear VR and more advanced offerings like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, there’s no central UI or appstore here. Instead, you find all your compatible apps within Google Play. Once you’ve downloaded your apps, you launch them like any other mobile app and then you put your phone into a viewer. Switching apps means you have to take your viewer out, close out the current VR app, and then pick another.

As for the selection? There are at least a few gems out there:

You can find even more via our Best Google Cardboard games list. It’s not all games though. Some of the best apps include:

For more apps, check out our Best Cardboard apps and experiences list.

Getting started with your new Cardboard

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Convinced that Cardboard is right for you? Once you’ve ordered it, you might wonder how you actually use it. The first thing you’ll want to do when your headset arrives (or you build it) is download the official Google Cardboard app. This is a great starting point, as there is an easy setup guide as well as a portal for finding apps and other Google Cardboard experiences.

If you’re looking for additional apps, hit up the section above and check out some of our recommended apps. Also don’t forget to check out Youtube, which has an extensive library of VR videos that you can watch with your Cardboard viewer.

A final word of caution: some apps can’t be found simply by using the official Cardboard app. So if you’re looking for more Cardboard experiences, try hitting up the Google Play store and searching for terms like “VR” and “Cardboard”. You could find some gems in the process. Ultimately, Google Cardboard is a bit like the wild west of VR, but with its relatively low entry price, and the fact that the majority of apps are free or cheap, we highly recommend at least picking up a base viewer to get a taste of VR before deciding if it’s worth investing in something a bit more substantial.

What are the alternatives?

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There are many alternatives that have entered the marketplace to compliment the VR experience. Oculus VR, acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion, is probably the most well-known product in the VR space. The HTC Vive, Sony Playstation VR, and Samsung Gear VR are also names that are familiar when considering VR.

Exploring each of these alternatives is beyond the scope of this article, and warrants an in-depth discussion as to the pros and cons for each of the offerings; however, with the cheapest option mentioned above being the Samsung Gear VR at around $100 and the most expensive being around $800 (the Vive), the obvious conclusion can be drawn that these alternatives are in a different league to Google Cardboard, and offer a far greater feature-set.

Is Google Cardboard worth buying?

So back to the original question of if the Google Cardboard is a worthwhile purchase; the short answer is yes. Depending on whether you get one made of cardboard or something made of sturdier material like plastic, a Cardboard compatible device will set you back as little as a few bucks to as much as $80 or so. For such little investment, the value is unparalleled to the fun you’ll have tiptoeing into the world of VR.

Just be sure to keep in mind that it is just a bit of fun, doesn’t reflect the true VR immersive experience, and the higher-end headsets will be a much more comfortable and enjoyable experience for those that really want to fully embrace VR in all its immersive glory.

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