Google Cardboard doesn't look like much, but it's an important ambassador into virtual reality's new frontier.
Hold Cardboard up to your face and it's hard to escape the notion that Google is, in a word, kidding.
The virtual reality competition is spending big bucks on what's quickly shaping up to be the next frontier in electronic entertainment, and they're expecting us to do the same. Facebook acquired Oculus for $2 billion, and you can expect to spend about $1,500 for the total Oculus experience; Vive , from HTC and Valve, is a similarly pricey PC-tethered affair. Samsung's Gear VR headsets will set you back $200, and those work only with select Samsung phones.
The latest version of Google Cardboard, by contrast, is a glorified cardboard phone case that uses a pair of glass lenses and an app to drive your virtual reality experience. It will work with just about any Android or iOS smartphone, and set you back $30 -- or however long it takes you to root through your garage or basement for the right parts.
No, Cardboard isn't a serious entry in the virtual reality arms race. It's something far more important than that: a dirt-cheap, accessible way to bring this oft-promised, largely indiscernible technology to the masses.
The Cardboard experience is driven by the apps you'll find on Google Play or Apple's App store. And Adult Swim's Virtual Brainload VR app for Cardboard is a handful of buttery, salty popcorn dumped directly onto your cerebral cortex. It's an overwhelming celebration of color and sound; also little nauseating, but mostly wholly incomprehensible. Mystifying colors are paired with haunting sounds capped with a cynical homage to Americana, before you're dumped unceremoniously back where you've started. And like popcorn (or whatever your preferred snack is), it's over far too soon.
This, of course, makes it a perfect Cardboard experience: Cardboard (and popcorn) is meant to be shared, passed along to friends and curious onlookers so they can see exactly what the big deal is. And there are already plenty of experiences on the Google Play and Apple App stores. None are remotely as psychedelic as Adult Swim's offering, but there's still some fun to be had exploring space, or zipping around in a Mercedes Benz.
First-hand experience remains virtual reality's biggest hurdle. I, for example, remain convinced that augmented reality experiences like the one offered by Microsoft's HoloLens are cooler than VR. I don't have a HoloLens lying around, but I can point you to a handful of AR apps, readily available on your smartphone, to make my case.
The HTC Vive is a marvel of technical wizardry and game-design prowess, a union clever ideas and impressive hardware. But it was locked behind closed doors as a tantalizingly brief demo, doled out to a select few at industry events. And unless you've ponied up a few hundred dollars on Oculus Rift or Samsung Gear VR prototypes, or have well-connected friends, the best virtual reality can offer is a constant stream of folks saying "It's great, take my word for it." That's no way to sell a fundamentally different entertainment experience.
That's precisely why Google Cardboard is so cool. It's an ambassador, a gateway to this mysterious world of virtual reality that a few folks keep talking about, but most of us haven't experienced. And it's packed into an approachable little package: light, cheap and goofy enough to be approachable.
I suppose it helps that the design is clever. Version 2.0 of Google Cardboard, introduced in late May at the company's I/O developer conference, simplifies the design of its predecessor -- a ridiculous statement, because we're talking about folded cardboard here. But it's true. The magnet that the original version used to interact with apps is replaced with a trigger that taps directly onto the screen. The new Cardboard is slightly larger to accommodate bigger phones, but it also folds down into a slightly more compact shape.
Download the Cardboard app or some of the many of the VR demos that are popping up on Google Play and Apple's App Store, pop in a phone, and you're ready to go. There's no sweaty headband to wrangle and no cables tying you down. It's light, cheap and works with the hardware you likely already own.
Did I mention it's cheap? With Google Expeditions, educators will have a relatively inexpensive way to take their classroom on a quick trip to the Grand Canyon, or the Louvre. You can send your friends to space, or send your kids to Mars. You can leave Cardboard on a shelf, like I have, and blow the mind of every friend who's a little curious about that little box with the Google logo on it .
The Cardboard experience will vary, based on your device. I tested the app on my Nexus 5, a Samsung Galaxy S6, a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and an iPhone 6. As expected, devices with higher-resolution displays are going to fare better. Some of my colleagues also experienced a bit of lag while they were looking around in various apps, which left some of them feeling a bit nauseous.
You also aren't getting anything remotely close to the experience you'll have with proper virtual reality hardware. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive can both track your position in space, allowing you to truly walk around virtual landscapes, peering under and around objects. Samsung's Gear VR offers creature comforts like a focus wheel, so you can adjust the focus to your liking. And while I'm not keen strapping on a headset, adjustable bands will ensure that these headsets fit perfectly on your head. Headbands also leave your hands free to hold a controller or other input device, paving the way for more robust gaming experiences.
The Google Cardboard hardware isn't perfect. It always takes me a few seconds to focus on a phone's display when peering through the lenses, and the new trigger mechanism, while superior to the ViewMaster-esque magnet on the side of the first version, feels a little flimsy for my tastes -- I suspect that'll be the first part to break.
But conceptually, Google Cardboard is kind of perfect. Virtual reality, and all of its pitfalls and potential, is something that can't truly impress (or disappoint) until it's been experienced firsthand. Putting demonstration goggles for more robust VR gear in retail shops and hosting events will help bridge that gap, but there's no better marketing tool than hearing "You've got to try this" from a friend. Thirty bucks is a small price to pay for a taste of what's to come.