What is Google Cardboard?

Is this cheap VR headset even worth looking at?

Person using smartphone with Google Cardboard headset

Kyrylo Glivin/EyeEm/Getty Images

Google Cardboard is one of Google’s platforms for virtual reality. It presents an affordable entry into VR by providing a cheap phone holder for your existing smartphone to create a fully functioning VR headset. It is one of the most basic platforms for virtual reality, but also one of the most accessible given its affordable price.

How Virtual Reality Headsets Work

Virtual reality headsets typically consist of a pair of lenses and two displays housed in a single unit, offering each eye its own view. The headsets then track the wearer’s movements and recreate the movement with the virtual space shown on the displays. This gives the wearer the sense that they exist within the virtual space.

Google Cardboard boils down that formula to those basics. Google launched the Google Cardboard VR platform using actual cardboard. The cardboard could fold up into a phone holder and be fitted with lenses. Then, with a capable phone inserted and running Google’s Cardboard app, the smartphone screen displays split images for each eye and tracks the wearer’s head movement using the phone’s internal gyroscopic sensor. So, if the wearer turns to the left, the phone detects the turn and correspondingly rotates the perspective within the virtual space.

The Advantage of Google Cardboard, The Cheap VR Headset

Since cardboard is incredibly affordable, users with powerful smartphones can leverage their devices to experience VR without having to invest in a standalone VR headset. Even less powerful smartphones are capable of some Google Cardboard VR experiences.

Since the platform is easily accessible for a wide audience, VR developers also have incentive to create apps and other content for the platform. So, there’s no shortage of apps and 360- or 180-degree video designed to work with Google Cardboard. Virtual reality games, not surprisingly, were among the first apps for Cardboard.

The cardboard design is also just a starting point. A number of manufacturers have built more complex Google Cardboard headsets that offer sturdier constructions, more comfortable designs, or space for larger devices. The designs range from clip-on lenses that create simple VR glasses to bigger, molded plastic headsets. 

The Cardboard platform also offers support on older devices all the way back to the iPhone 5 and Android smartphones running Android 4.1 or higher. That said, it’s still worth checking for compatibility in the Play Store and iTunes, since Cardboard headsets come in many shapes and sizes, it’s also important to confirm that any given headset is design to house your specific smartphone.

Google Cardboard’s Shortcomings

While Google Cardboard presents a low barrier of entry for VR, it also is very limited in capability. The gyroscope used to detect a wearer's movement only translates to rotational tracking in virtual reality. In other words, you can only turn your head in 3D space. You cannot crouch, walk, or lean in real life and have those movements translated into the Cardboard VR experience.

More advanced VR headsets like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift do support these additional tracking types. They achieve this through external sensors, which monitor the movements of the headset and recreate all of these movements within the virtual environment.

Motion-tracked controllers can also be used with these more advanced headsets, offering the sense that your hands are actual in the virtual space for an even more immersive experience.

And, more and more advanced VR headsets are coming out, with full motion tracking and motion-tracked controllers. Google Cardboard largely stands at the low end of the complexity and quality spectrum, mainly serving as an affordable way to experience VR for the first time before investing in dedicated VR hardware.