All About Cardboard, Google's Virtual-Reality Device

How The Company Hopes to Spark Interest in VR with a DIY Piece of Hardware.

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By now you’ve probably heard about virtual reality. (Heck, the technology has even found its way into a Hot Pockets commercial!) But while some of the best virtual-reality devices include the Oculus Rift, the Samsung Gear VR and the Sony PlayStation VR — all of which cost well over $100 — you’ll find an intriguing device at the other end of the price spectrum. 

Enter Google Cardboard. Originally introduced at the company’s developer-focused I/O conference in 2014, this device is made of (you’ve guessed it) cardboard, and is essentially a mount for a smartphone.

Cardboard’s been billed as a DIY virtual-reality headset, and its creators at Google have said they hope to encourage VR development and drum up interest in virtual reality by making Google Cardboard so accessible. 

The Cost

By accessible, I mean cheap. Compared to other products in the VR category, the Google Cardboard is a steal. Through Google's website, you'll find Cardboard headsets starting at $5, with the most expensive option going for about $70.

The Hardware

Though the idea for Cardboard came from Google itself, the company established a set of specifications so that many third-party manufacturers could offer their own hardware. The standard specifies the parts needed for assembly, including cardboard, 45mm focal length lenses, magnets a rubber band and more. A near field communication (NFC) tag is optional; when it’s included on a Cardboard device, the phone will read the tag and launch a specified Cardboard-compatible app.

The basic template is available for download on Google’s website, letting manufacturers large and small try their hand at VR. Back in 2014, Volvo released its own Cardboard headset, for example, with the goal of offering users the opportunity to "test-drive" one of its luxury SUVs through a specially made Android app.

Works with Google Cardboard Certification

Companies can even apply for Works with Google Cardboard certification, which indicates that a third-party device will support apps created for the Google Cardboard ecosystem. (Within the Cardboard app, you’ll find a selection of compatible apps for the device.)

Software

Google offers developers two SDKs (software development kits) for building apps to work with Google Cardboard devices. One is for Android, Google's mobile operating system, and the other is for a cross-platform gaming engine called Unity. 

A quick search in the Google Play store reveals there are already quite a few apps available for download, including games and virtual-reality "tour" experiences. 

The Future of Cardboard

The materials may be inexpensive, but don't let that fool you; Google Cardboard is a serious endeavor. The fact that the company knows mobile so well — thanks to its Android operating system — means it's in a prime position to deliver smartphone-based virtual-reality experiences, and we've already seen a few companies jump on board with apps meant for Cardboard users. 

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