Google Cardboard review: The cheapest ticket to Mars

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MSRP: $15.00

The Good Google Cardboard is a fun, inexpensive way to turn nearly any Android phone or iPhone into a virtual reality viewer, allowing nearly anyone to get in on the fun.

The Bad The extremely simplistic experience means it's only as good as your phone -- don't expect this to measure up to full-fledged VR goggles like Oculus, Gear VR or Vive.

The Bottom Line Google Cardboard isn't a contender for the VR throne: it's the ambassador that'll make us care about virtual reality in the first place.

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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.

Downloading new worlds

James Martin/CNET

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.

James Martin/CNET

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.