A relatively simple virtual-reality headset, Cardboard includes a set of lenses to peer through, a magnetic ring that acts as a trigger when pulled down, and rubber bands to keep the phone from falling out. A Google employee demonstrates the VR headset.

Google ran out of Cardboard units to distribute.

German startup Shoogee, which built the VR headset Dive, collaborated on Cardboard, selling its lenses to Google for the project.

It takes less than a minute to construct the headset.

A magnetic ring acts as a trigger (such as to select or pick up an object) when pulled down.

The magnetic ring works by interrupting the smartphone's internal compass.

The smartphone is tucked into one end of the cardboard VR headset.

Google Wants Developers Building Virtual-Reality Apps For A Piece Of Cardboard

A gimmick? Cardboard could be Google's ploy to launch Android as a platform for virtual-reality apps.

As usual, Google handed out an array of freebies to attendees of its I/O conference, hoping to entice developers to build applications for its devices. Among them: a square smatchwatch--their choice of the LG G Watch or Samsung Gear Live, the round Moto 360 watch, and a piece of cardboard.

Though attendees were confused by the cardboard gesture, they soon realized the flat piece of pasteboard could be folded to construct a virtual-reality headset powered by an Android phone. And as with the smartwatches handed out, Google wants apps for Cardboard.

A relatively simple concept, Cardboard includes a set of lenses, a magnetic ring that acts as a trigger (to select an app or pick up an object) when pulled down, an embedded NFC sensor, and rubber bands (to keep the phone from falling out). Cardboard's app splits the smartphone screen into two displays--one for each eye--to produce a stereoscopic 3-D view. Using the phone's gyroscope, which measures angular momentum, it can present an interactive picture with changing perception based on the movement of the wearer's head.

"Our idea was to build the simplest and cheapest way of turning your smartphone into a virtual-reality viewer," said Paris-based software engineer David Coz, who noted Cardboard was his 20% project at Google.

Despite the buzz, however, strapping a smartphone to one's face to create a VR headset isn't a new concept. German startup Shoogee released Dive, an $80 VR viewer that makes use of either an iOS or Android smartphone, in November. The company collaborated on Cardboard, selling its lenses to Google for the project.

It's possible Google could bring virtual reality to the masses with this low-tech piece of hardware. But it's more likely that Cardboard is a proof of concept to show the potential of VR on the Android platform. As such, Google could be pushing developers to build for Cardboard because it wants a library of VR content available for the day when headsets, such as Oculus Rift, enter the Android ecosystem.

Google's Cardboard virtual-reality headset.Image: Alice Truong/Fast Company

So far, Cardboard has been a hit at the conference. Google ran out of units to give away, but anyone interested can make their own version with these design files available online. Already, homemade cardboard viewers have started popping up on social media sites. San Fransisco-based Dodocase, which makes protective gear for smartphones, tablets, and computers, even began selling a version online for $20 (a discount from the suggested retail price of $45).

Google demoed a few compatible apps at the event, including Earth, YouTube, Street Vue (a more interactive Street View), the art app Exhibit, and an interactive animation called Windy Day. Using Google Earth with Cardboard was reminiscent of watching a video in a planetarium--except I was in control of the camera, able to fly around the world, even up to space. Google has imagined ways developers could use QR codes to create augmented-reality experiences, or how Hollywood could create interactive second-screen apps. Cardboard could also work with Project Tango, the yet-to-be released spatially aware, modular smartphone with 3-D sensors from the search giant's R&D arm. "We really want to get you inspired by these experiences and demos," Coz said.

Using the experimental Cardboard toolkit--which estimates eye positions, corrects for the lens distortion, and displays the interactive content in landscape stereo--developers can build Android apps or web apps that run on Chrome.

Cardboard is still very much in its infancy--the project was conceived about six months ago--so there's still a lot to figure out and tweak. Ultimately, that work will be up to developers, who are tasked with taking Google's VR initiative to new heights. Because this is all considered experimental, Google won't be offering full support for Cardboard like it does for something like Android Wear. Still, there's plenty of potential. "It's just the tip of the iceberg," Smus said about the device currently. "Obviously, smartphones have a lot of sensors we haven't tapped into."

[Image: Alice Truong/Fast Company]

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