Google Cardboard is a small cardboard-and-lens device designed to make the virtual reality experience available to anyone with a compatible smartphone. The project began with David Coz and Damien Henry’s well-received efforts at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris to develop a cardboard smartphone housing that would produce a very low-cost (or no-cost for DIY users) VR experience. The device is comprised of a single pre-fabricated piece of cardboard that the user assembles through a cutting and folding process. Two lenses are built into the cardboard frame to transform a stereoscopic 3d-image on the smartphone screen into a virtual reality experience.
The cardboard housing provides the structure to hold the phone, block out peripheral vision and light, and to position two lenses at the eyes to transform the image. A small sliding magnet is built into the side that allows the user—on android phones only—to make choices and selections within apps designed for the interface.
Although Google has not made the device available commercially, it encourages interested users to build their own device and provides detailed instructions on the project website. There are many options for purchasing prefabricated Google Cardboard for purchase on Amazon from third-party developers (average cost is about $20). Google has also created an open software toolkit for the Cardboard project and has provided developers with resources and tutorials to get started. Open-source developers will not receive the same level of support that official Google developers/vendors receive.
Google claims that cardboard will work with most Android phones running Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) or higher. NFC capability is required if you are using the dedicated Google Cardboard app and want it to launch automatically.
Phones running iOS can benefit from some of the capabilities of Google Cardboard, but workable apps are currently limited to those made for a similar device, the Durovis Dive. The magnet does not work with iOS devices, preventing users from making choices within apps.
The basic cardboard model, available on Amazon and on sites like https://www.unofficialcardboard.com/, fits standard-sized phones. Google has not published blueprints to fit larger-sized phones, but bigger pre-fab models can easily be found on Amazon.
As Google cardboard is designed only for use with smartphones, gaming will be limited to smartphone apps. Currently there are well over a hundred simulated VR apps in the Google Play shop that will work with the device. Given the open-source nature of the programming for the device, we can expect continued robust development of new apps.
With the official cardboard app from Google, a user can watch YouTube, explore Google Earth, and watch 3D and 360-degree videos. It is also possible to find and view stereoscopic 3D videos through the YouTube app on both android and iOS phones, although the quality of this experience is much reduced. The 3D effect works as it should, but video quality is often flattened and blurred at the edges of vision.
Several apps designed for stereoscopic 3d viewing aim to provide viewing and virtual travel through real streets, similar to the way that Google street provides a roughly 360-degree view of one’s surroundings. These apps are as yet only available to Android phone users.
The virtual reality headset market is a highly anticipated field at the moment, with high-profile systems like Oculus Rift (http://www.daelab.com/?page_id=1744&preview=true), Sony’s Project Morpheus, and Samsung’s Gear VR getting lots of attention. None of these products are available commercially yet, and they bear little resemblance to the low-tech Cardboard device, which mainly aims to transform a user’s existing tech. Google Cardboard is open-source (both software and hardware), so it will not be affected by market competition. One major advantage that Cardboard has over systems like Oculus is the lack of hard-wiring, providing greater freedom of movement.
The closest available product to Google Cardboard is the Durovis Dive, a manufactured, hands-free smartphone holder that performs essentially the same function as Cardboard. It is a for-profit commercial device currently for sale on the market (currently running at roughly $74). Durovis Dive apps are the only dedicated VR apps that can currently work with an IPhone/Google Cardboard combo. Google’s official Cardboard project site links directly to the Durovis OpenDive Lens Kit for sale on Amazon as a recommendation for users building a device from scratch at home.
The writers at Tested.com indicated that Oculus is working with Samsung to make a VR headset that can work with Samsung phones. If produced, it would likely be the strongest competitor to Google Cardboard (though competition is a relative term when talking about a free product like Cardboard).
As mentioned, although Google Cardboard can provide the visual VR experience on iOS devices, the magnet-button functionality is missing and the app selection is poor. Even some Android users online have expressed difficulty in getting the magnet to work—suggesting that the magnet is the most problematic aspect of the device.
Professional testers have also noted that even for phones with 1080p screens, refresh rates and pixel response times on most phones are insufficient to provide a smooth viewing experience, often causing image smearing and stuttering that can cause nausea.
The physical cardboard device itself can be difficult to assemble because of its fragility – folding or tearing even one part incorrectly can harm the final product. Even after assembly the device will remain very fragile, highly susceptible to crushing or water damage.
Additionally, the need to hold the device against one’s face may limit the ability of users to employ the device for long periods of time.