Virtual reality is all the rage nowadays. Unfortunately, most VR headsets are too expensive and out of reach for most people to use. A team of engineers at Google realized this, and set out to create a virtual reality headset that’s affordable, accessible, and easy to use. The result: Google Cardboard, a simple device that lets you experience VR in an easy, fast, and accessible way.
First, let’s take a look at the device. This is the most basic model, and it has quite a simple design. It’s a cardboard box shaped like a headset, with a slot to insert your phone and two lenses to look through. Although there is a variety of different models, all with slight differences, they all function essentially in the same way. To get started, you’ll want to install the official Cardboard app onto your phone and pair it with your device by following the onscreen instructions. Once you’ve done that, simply slip your phone into the cardboard. Then all you have to do is close it back up and you’re good to go!
Now it’s time for the magic to start. Hold the Cardboard up to your eyes and take a look. What you’ll see is a simple demo of the device’s capabilities. The demo will guide you through a short tutorial on how to use the device, where it explains how you can control it by moving your head and with the single button at the top. Once you understand that, the app also has a few more demonstrations, such as a museum tour and an interactive, yet very simple, game.
Beyond the simple demo app, there’s a wide range of applications that take advantage of the Cardboard capabilities. Some of the best apps for the cardboard are featured in the “Get Apps” tab of the app, and you can browse a full list on your phone’s app store.
One great app to use with the Cardboard is YouTube, which has a catalog of virtual reality videos from roller coaster rides to skydiving. Videos as a whole work really well in the cardboard. The videos on YouTube are surprisingly entertaining and pull the viewer in very well, especially for such an inexpensive device. There have even been some high-quality productions shot in 360° that you can watch, such as the New York Times’ “Daily 360°” series and a short preview of the Netflix series “Stranger Things.” And for non-360° videos, there is an app to simulate a movie theater where you can watch your regular videos as if they were playing on the big screen.
Along with videos, there is a range of VR games to play on the Cardboard. Unfortunately because of the limits of the hardware, most of the games that I tried weren’t very fun. There were a few that ran pretty well (for example, “End Space,” now called Minos Starfighter) but most of the games became boring after a few minutes. They also were pretty disorienting because the image of the phone lagged behind my actual movement, causing me to feel a bit nauseous. There are also some more experimental apps, such as a virtual reality social network and an app that lets you simulate designing the inside of a house. You can even take your own virtual reality photos with the Cardboard Camera app and then re-experience the moment later or share it with friends, all in 360°.
One game Zach especially liked was Hidden Temple VR. It is a single-player adventure game built for Cardboard. The user collects coins and completes escape-room like challenges in order to escape an Egyptian tomb. The graphics aren’t great, but since they are designed for Cardboard, they look fine. The game moves the user around by playing a walking animation, and Zach said this mechanic didn’t make him nauseous most of the time. Overall, he really recommended this game, and I do too. It’s the only adventure game for Cardboard that lasts more than a few minutes, and although it costs $5, it is certainly worth the price.
In terms of the actual hardware, there are certainly some things left to be desired. The device is painful to hold and doesn’t offer a very immersive experience as a whole. The absence of a strap makes it uncomfortable after a few minutes of being used, unless you buy a version with a strap like Unofficial Cardboard, and the rough cardboard feel is pretty annoying. Because it’s so inexpensive, these flaws are completely expected and justifiable – just don’t expect to use it for long periods at a time without feeling some discomfort. And while there are slightly higher-end headsets that offer a better experience – for a higher price point – this basic version – which comes in at around $15 – is by far the most common.
Now it’s time for the conclusion. I think that the Cardboard is a great device for having fun and getting your feet wet in the world of virtual reality. Of course, it’s nowhere near the experience of much more premium headsets like the HTC Vive, but it’s still a fun experience. And that’s really what the Cardboard is all about: opening up the fun experience of virtual reality to everyone.
I’d definitely recommend taking a look at the Cardboard if you’re interested in getting a taste of virtual reality without burning a hole through your wallet. You can grab the basic viewer for $15, or browse some more premium headsets here.