What is Google Cardboard?

You might have seen a bit of interest in Google Cardboard rise to the surface lately. At Google I/O 2015 we saw the launch of a more universal viewer as well as a new classroom experience dubbed "Expeditions" where teachers and students can have synchronized virtual fieldtrips. The Google Cardboard app was even made available on the App Store for iPhone 6 and 6-plus users. Some very cool stuff, which is why people are talking about it. Never mind that everything at I/O 2015 was made of cardboard.

Seeing and reading about this stuff doesn't help much if you don't understand just what Google Cardboard is, though. So lets take a few minutes and get that sorted.

Google Cardboard

Google Cardboard is a complete virtual reality platform. It was developed at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris as one of those famous 20-percent time projects, and we first saw it at Google I/O 2014.

The hardware side of Google Cardboard uses low-cost viewers, with the reference design made of foldable cardboard (hence the name) 45mm plastic lenses, and a magnet or capacitive-taped lever to operate the screen. Once you get everything folded into the right configuration (most kits come pre folded and assembled) you slip your phone into the front of the viewer (usually held in place by velcro or rubber bands) and run an app designed to work with Cardboard. You can also buy viewers made from plastic, or aluminum, or EVA foam. Or viewers that look completely different, but work great. The viewer only needs to do two things — hold the phone in front of the lenses at the right distance, and provide a way to interact with the screen.

push the button

As with most things of this nature, the right software is important. Once you have your phone in the viewer and are running a Google Cardboard-compatible app (opens in new tab), software magic takes over. The software splits the screen into a right and left pane — one for each of your eyes — and applies a bit of distortion that corrects any barrel distortion the plastic lenses creates. The effect is a stereoscopic image that completely fills your field of vision, and immerses you into a virtual world. Using a magnet on older versions, or a lever with a capacitive end to touch the screen on newer versions, you interact with things in your world. Developers can also use the motion sensors in your phone to navigate through things.

Google Cardboard

That's the technical(ish) explanation. In layman's terms, it's all pretty simple. Assemble your viewer, open a Google Cardboard compatible app, and place your phone in the viewer. Use the magnet switch or the pushbutton to do things like open doors, change scenes or shoot at pumpkins. It's very cool, very easy, and a great VR experience on the cheap.

Google Cardboard is inexpensive (you can use your existing phone and build a viewer with $4.00 worth of parts and a pizza box) and something you need to experience to understand why people are excited about it.

Google Cardboard parts

Just add a pizza box

We'll talk more about Cardboard and Cardboard apps in the next few days. There's a lot of good stuff to talk about in this space!

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

37 Comments
  • Thank you for this! I always assumed it was some sort of Kickstarter style thing, where google provides materials if they believe it has a purpose. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Thanks for the explanation. I was trying to find a way to buy one before I read this. It looks like I'll need to build one with the kit. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I'm just looking into it myself, but it doesn't appear you have to build one. https://www.google.com/get/cardboard/get-cardboard/
  • I don't really understand why Google doesn't sell them directly itself? Seems like if all these small third parties can do it, they should be able to as well. Plus, they could sell them much closer to cost, instead of trying to make a big profit off them like all these other companies are doing ($20 for something made of cardboard, and two little lenses??)
  • Probably because Google is a software company and NOT a hardware company.
  • Google sells a lot of hardware from other manufactures, I see no reason why they couldn't sell (keyword sell) as well.
  • Yeah, but they made the ones for GoogleIO, there is no reason they couldn't scale up that process. Also, this isn't exactly super complex hardware we are talking about. Think of it this way, the companies currently selling them (as far as I know) didn't even exist until last year. If someone can come out of the blue and do it, I'm sure Google could if they wanted to. :)
  • Amazon is a really good place to go browse for these. If you buy one, make sure it has the magnet switch though. Many don't. I suggest a cheap one to start ($5) then get a better one if you like it. (`$30 for a plastic one)
  • I bought this last year for less than $3. It's just the precut cardboard kit and a couple of lenses. It suits its purpose and is fine for trying out the compatible apps. I don't know how well phones bigger than 5.5 inches will fit in it though. http://m.tinydeal.com/product/diy-google-cardboard-vr-3d-glasses-for-iph... Posted via Android Central App
  • Can Cardboard be used with corrective eyeglasses?
  • Kind of. There are also models with adjustable lenses to compensate that you can buy. We'll talk about where to get this sort of thing and more in the next few days.
  • I have a set that allows me to refocus, and they work pretty well for me and my wife, and we both have different vision issues.
  • Heads up, should say Expeditions not Exeditions :) Posted via the Android Central App
  • when will u be able buy cardboard 2? Posted via AC app with my N9
  • Now. https://www.google.com/get/cardboard/get-cardboard/
  • How can I get the Google Cardboard 2 that everyone got at I/O?? Posted via Android Central App on The Nexus 5
  • https://www.google.com/get/cardboard/get-cardboard/
  • These are different.. Posted via Android Central App on The Nexus 5
  • http://www.amazon.com/v2-0-AM-CARDBOARDAE-CARDBOARD-KIT/dp/B00YF5Z14...
  • Jerry, any word on where you can purchase Google Cardboard. I'm not interested in fumbling around with a Pizza box when someones already figured it out and you can drop a $20 to get it.
  • He already linked to it in the article. Here it is again: https://www.google.com/get/cardboard/get-cardboard/
  • That's actually really cool. Posted via the Android Central App on my Nexus 5 or Nexus 7 2013
  • It may be cheaper to make your own, but you still have to get the correct materials (ex. lenses, magnets...). It's a lot easier, and not expensive, to buy a kit. You can buy the Google Cardboard headset, or buy one that is compatible with Google Cardboard. I especially like the new Powis ViewR at http://powiscustom.com/products/powis-viewr. They also have one that is compatible with the first Google cardboard... http://powiscustom.com/products/powis-virtual-reality-kit.
  • Yeah I would like to get one that is big enough to accomodate the G4! Any ideas?
  • Again, here: https://www.google.com/get/cardboard/get-cardboard/
  • You still can't buy one direct from google on this website. It shows pictures only and you can buy old versions of it.
  • Wrong. All those pictures are links to Google Cardboard sellers, and most of them listed there are selling/taking preorders for Google Cardboard 2. Posted via the Android Central App
  • I don't want a 3rd party Cardboard. I want the Google one. Or were those only for I/O attendees?? Posted via Android Central App on The Nexus 5
  • https://www.google.com/search?q=red+toy+picture+viewer&client=ms-android... Posted via the Android Central App
  • First sentence should read: "Google Cardboard gives you a CRAPPY, STUTTERING, BLURRY virtual reality experience without a big price tag." For real people: if you think THIS JUNK represents VR - try a Gear VR or a DK2. Just because it´s cheap doesn't mean its worth your time...
  • Haha, sounds like someone was disappointed their Cardboard viewer didn't instantly and seamlessly transport them to another world! I got a £12.99 ($20) kit for Xmas and I think its pretty awesome. If you enjoy stereoscopic effects and an insight into the possibilities ahead, this is the thing for you. If you expect it to be as good as $200 Oculus Rift plus a $1000 PC, then err.... you have been misled!
  • Have you SEEN the VR presentation during I/O? Google told the world EXACTLY that: Cardboard is awesome VR! Except its not. Its not even VR. All the things you need for real vr - (low persistence display, 60+ fps, high precision sensors and so on) - CB has none of them. They shouldn't call it VR. Because its not. Real VR creates presence. DK2 creates presence. Gear VR creates presence. Cardboard does not. CB is a awesome toy. But it's not VR. Like this http://www.popsugar.com/tech/Pizza-Hut-Blockbuster-Box-Movie-Projector-3... is the most awesome thing i have seen... EVER. But also its a toy - and not a real projector. I am not complaining about the google engineers creating cardboard. I am complaining that google over-promises the shit out of that thing and telling us its something that its not. EVERYTHING else in the I/O presentation was fantastic. VR youtube, the camera system, the processing of the videos... AWESOME. Just CB not...
  • For people who can't afford to drop several hundred dollars for an Oculus or Samsung kit, Google Cardboard is just fine. Posted via the Android Central App
  • CAPITAL LETTERS
  • I got one last week of of Amazon for $10 for my son. He loves it. Can't wait to see the future. Posted via Android Central App from Samsung Note 3 or Surface Pro 3
  • are there blueprints for larger devices like the Note 2 or iPhone 6 plus?
  • There's a better place to get them at low cost with free shipping
    http://www.dx.com/p/assembling-google-virtual-reality-cardboard-w-resin-...