Facebook has Oculus, Google has Cardboard

Google carves out a small slice of its annual I/O developers conference to give a shoutout to virtual reality, with a not-so-hi-tech invention.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
2 min read

Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

While virtual reality has captured the hearts, minds, and wallets of gamers, futurists, and Facebook executives everywhere, Google has mostly kept off the field -- until today.

At its annual I/O developers conference, the search giant handed out a mysterious package as part of its now-expected goodie bag for attendees. Alongside the choice between a brand new LG G Watch or Samsung Gear Live smartwatch, giddy developers got their hands on a virtual reality headset that just happened to be made from cardboard.

Intended to be a do-it-yourself starter kit, Google Cardboard is a head-mounted housing unit for your smartphone that lets you blend everyday items into a VR headset. With a $10 lens kit, $7 worth of magnets, two Velcro straps, a rubber band, and an optional near-field communication sticker tag, you can have your very own scrappy headset.

Considering Oculus VR, now owned by Facebook, uses smartphone screens for its Rift device, it's not too farfetched to expect a reasonably usable version of the technology can be achieved this way.

Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

While it sounds goofy and inherently tongue-in-cheek, the Cardboard project was concocted by Google's David Coz and Damien Henry at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris as part of the company's "20 percent time" initiative with the aim of inspiring a more low-cost model for VR development. After an early prototype wowed Googlers, a larger group was tasked with building out the idea.

"Virtual reality has made exciting progress over the past several years. However, developing for VR still requires expensive, specialized hardware. Thinking about how to make VR accessible to more people, a group of VR enthusiasts at Google experimented with using a smartphone to drive VR experiences," reads Google's new developers page for Cardboard.

Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

Google isn't stopping at hardware, if you'll allow us to call it that. The company released today a self-described experimental software development kit for Cardboard experiences. Cardboard also has an Android companion app that's required to utilize Google's own VR-specific applications, called Chrome Experiments. Some use cases Google cites now are flyover tours in Google Earth, full-screen YouTube video viewing, and first-person art exhibit tours.

"By making it easy and inexpensive to experiment with VR, we hope to encourage developers to build the next generation of immersive digital experiences and make them available to everyone," Google says.