Google Cardboard is exciting because it makes virtual reality accessible to anyone with a smartphone and a few extra bucks. Sure, the Oculus is cool, but $200 for a headset is still steep for the average person. Google Cardboard is…well, cardboard. Viewers cost around $20. It’s virtual reality for the masses. You assemble it in a few minutes, pop your phone in, and seconds later you’re standing in your apartment saying “OH MY GOD…OH MY GOD…OH MY GOD” because the future is here.
At least that’s how I felt about it. That, and pretty nauseated. Those VR physics aren’t quite right yet. But overall, it was incredible.
I went for NFC support, but honestly, it’skind of stupid here. It’s an extra $5 and all it does is autodetect when your phone is in the viewer and starts the Cardboard app.
Shipping was $5 and took like 2 weeks to come from China. It arrived as a flat piece of cardboard. I’m not sure why I was surprised by this, but it was odd to think that this thing would somehow become a virtual reality headset:
Here’s the back of the flat package:
It was anxiety-inducing pulling off the perforated cardboard tab to open the kit because it felt like I could be tearing off a necessary piece, given that the whole thing was made of the same material.
Once I opened the kit, the instructions were visible. The “tags” they’re referencing are actually the slight protrusions you see at the tops and sides of the piece with the eye lenses, so they’re more like raised edges than tabs. That threw me off a little in putting it together.
The other side of the unrolled kit had these instruction icons on it, which were more mystifying than helpful. Note the QR code, too; scanning that calibrates the Cardboard app with the particular viewer you’re using:
But I figured it out once I realized what the tags were, and it came together quickly:
There’s a magnet on the side that acts as a button for selecting items when you’re in VR. The explanation of how it works from the manufacturers of my kit:
“The magnet is used for clicking inside of demos. When you pull and release the ring, your phone’s magnetometer detects changes in the magnetic field. Chrome experiments currently don’t use the magnet, but you will need it to try the Cardboard Android app.
Not all phones will be able to detect magnet pulls. You can use Cardboard without the magnet by sticking copper tape along the side of the viewer and having it come into contact with the phone screen. When you tap twice on the copper tape with your finger, the phone will react as if it had detected a magnet pull.”
Using the magnet is a little clunky because you have to pull and release it semi-aggressively to trip the magnetic field change that triggers the button action. Still, it’s cool that a magnet on a piece of cardboard is causing an app to recognize a click. You can see the magnet below, plus the grooved area in which it moves:
Once it was assembled and held together more solidly with two pieces of sticky tape provided, it was time to put in my phone in the top flap. You can also see the rubber band they provide as a low-fi way to keep the viewer on your head:
I have an Android Nexus 5 and it fit perfectly in the viewer without the phone case. The back flap covers the phone, then connects via velcro on the top.
I had already installed the Google Cardboard app, so it automatically opened because of the NFC connection once it was in the viewer. Then I held it up to my face, and it was time to go full sci-fi. And holy hell, was it amazing.
The first thing you see is the app menu, an endless horizontal scroll of icons floating in your vision. They cycle through when you look to either side. Screenshots are obviously weird because the two images for each eye appear as one, so below’s the best I can do:
I fumbled with the magnet to choose one, a short demo called “Windy Day.” Suddenly I was immersed in it. The world wasn’t particularly impressive graphically, nor was the two-minute story that interesting, but I felt like I was there. It was wild.
The character’s on the screen in front of you, but you can look around, up, or anywhere else. The action continues regardless of you looking at it. Here’s me looking up a few seconds later:
To exit an app, you tilt your head to the side. I did that and opened up Google Earth, which put me on top of a mountain range:
Pressing the magnet button starts moving you forward, so it’s like you’re floating in whatever direction you’re looking. The graphics were slow and filled in as I was watching them, but it was still unbelievable.
Bottom line: it’s insane to be standing in your living room holding a piece of cardboard to your face with your phone stuck in it, yet be totally transported to another universe. It was a secular religious experience.
I’ve loved the concept of virtual reality my whole life through books and movies like Snow Crash, The Matrix, and Ready Player One, but Google Cardboard was the first time it struck me that this is happening, it’s happening now, and it’s going to be super accessible to almost everyone on the planet.
Apps for Cardboard are limited, both because there aren’t many of them and the ones that exist contain only brief experiences that feel more like demos than fully realized programs. Still, it’s clear that VR is the future, and we’re right at the beginning of the revolution. The last time I had this feeling was with early computer games in the 90’s attempting to do 3D, like Wolfenstein 3D: the graphics were rough, there weren’t many game options, but you still knew that the concept would be huge. I can’t wait for the next generation of apps and viewers.