I’m a bit late to be writing about Google Cardboard – it’s almost three years old, and Google has moved on to Daydream. It’s still relevant and interesting, even though at first I was quite negative about it.
It is still the least expensive way to play with VR: all you need is a smartphone and an inexpensive headset. There are strict limitations, but if you design within them, interesting experiences are possible. Daydream (Google’s next step beyond Cardboard) is Android-only and for now, a fair amount more expensive. It’s also not comparable because it includes a controller.
The Cardboard design includes a housing to hold a smartphone, a lense for each eye to look at one half of the screen, and a ‘trigger’ button mechanism. The initial button design used a magnet to leverage the internal compass most smartphones have. This is inexpensive, but I’ve found it to be unreliable, and even when reliable, there is always a delay. There is enough latency and headsets with unreliable triggers that I tend to design around it. Newer models now have a capacitive ‘pass-through touch button’ as the trigger, which is reliable and more much responsive.
In the last few years I’ve accumulated a few different headsets, and tried out even more. My general recommendations are:
- Don’t go for expensive headsets or ones bundled with controllers. The experience is very limited to begin with, depends more on the phone, and the controllers are not well supported.
- Make sure the headset fits your phone form factor (read the product description to verify)
- Please don’t expect to be able to walk around with Cardboard VR experiences – there is no way to support that.
The most inexpensive Cardboard I’ve found
The first Cardboard I bought was the cheapest possible – it was free shipping that took over a month, and didn’t even come with any instructions. Once I got it together it worked well. It fit my iPhone 5S as well as an Android Moto X. I ran it through the Cardboard calibration tool and made a custom QR code for my settings. I printed that out and pasted it right to the unit. The cardboard isn’t coated at all so it will get some discolouration from oils from your forehead. The headphone jack is easy to access so there is no problem with using this with headphones.
I put some washi tape on it to try to mask the discolouration
I would recommend this headset if you want a very low cost option, are okay with spending a bit of time assembling, and don’t mind the discolouration. The optics are fine and it’s quite compact and easy to transport. You can see that at last year’s CVR (2016) there are some official photos of someone playing a game prototype I was working on with my very own headset:
(I was an attendee, but brought my own prototype to demo ad-hoc to friends I bumped into.)
- No instructions (you can figure it out from the photos)
- Not the most sturdy
- Discolouration from use
- No supplied QR code for calibration
- Unreliable magnet-based trigger button
Official Google Cardboard
Google has their own official Cardboard headset, which is still made of cardboard, but appears to have a coating to prevent the facial oil discolourations. The optics are larger and it is quite sturdy. I don’t have one of these myself but I have tried out models purchased directly from Google as well as one that were given away at previous Google I/O events.
- No (less?) discolouration
- Larger lenses
- Newest model has a capacitive trigger button
- Priced very close to other headsets that have a head strap such as the SmartTheater VR
View-Master Virtual Reality
The second headset I bought was the Mattel View-Master. It’s a throwback to the old View-Master slide things from the 1940s. There is no assembly required, and it is a plastic construction. It’s the largest headset I’ve tried so far, and because it’s plastic it tends to be the one I pack with me, especially in a crowded bag. The optics don’t seem as good as even the cheap Cardboard – I’m not sure why. The trigger is magnet-based but is pretty reliable. When closed, the unit doesn’t have any outlets or room for a headphone cable – I end up almost crimping my iPhone earbuds cable when trying to use them with it. Despite the lack of cardboard, I’ve found forehead oils tend to build up on this unit as well.
It comes bundled with some software but I haven’t bothered to try it yet.
- Tough exterior
- Looks like a View-Master
- Closing clasp can feel unreliable after a lot of use
- No room to run a headphone cable outside of unit
- A bit bulky
- More reliable, but still magnet-based trigger button
- Not as good as similarly-priced headsets such as the SmartTheater VR
My most recent headset is the SmartTheater VR. I was able to try one out at the Consumer VR Conference 2016, and was very impressed by it. Afterwards I tried to buy one but they are not available in Canada – only in the USA. I kept following up with them about Canadian availability and they have been trying hard to get it in the market. Finally, I ordered one from Amazon.com and shipped it to some friends, who sent it to me. This is my favourite headset and the quality is great. It has a capacitive trigger. This headset also has a strap, so you don’t have to hold it up with your arm. This isn’t an official part of the Cardboard headset specification, but it is a welcome addition.
- Great lenses
- Easy to mount phone
- Capacitive trigger button
- Head strap
- Potentially hard to get outside of the USA
Size comparison of the three models I have
I hope this was helpful! I’m currently writing up my recommended apps to check out if you happen to have a cardboard headset – a list that will include the game I am working on..
Disclaimer: The links to Amazon.com are affiliate links.