Google's new Cardboard headset proves that good virtual reality doesn't have to be expensive

Right now, people are freaking out over Google Cardboard, which is literally a piece of cardboard that you use to hold a smartphone to your face for cheap, effective virtual reality.

It’s not new, exactly. Google unveiled the first Cardboard headset at last year’s Google I/O conference.

But at this year’s Google I/O event, the company distributed a new, improved Google Cardboard headset that takes only three steps to assemble, versus the 12 it took to put the old version together. Plus, it also supports bigger phones, which is important because smartphones as a whole are bigger than they used to be.

It’s pretty cool. And, more importantly, it proves you don’t need a $US1,500 computer rig to have a compelling virtual reality experience (looking at you, Oculus).

The new Google Cardboard starts off as an innocuous-looking tiny box, merely hinting at the possibility (and additional cardboard) within:

Slide it out and you find a headset just waiting to be unfolded:

From there, you just have to slide your phone into the front of the cardboard viewer and velcro it shut. I’d show you what that looks like, but I needed my phone to take this picture at the conference.

Pair it up with the Google Cardboard app, which is now available for both Android and iOS, and you get access to a few different VR experiences including an “urban hike” through Paris around the Eiffel Tower by way of Google Street View. Another VR experience lets you examine virtual “artifacts.” A button of sorts located on the top of the headset allows you to make selections. In the Paris tour, you use that button to choose which way to go.

If you’re not looking through the viewer, the Cardboard app looks a little strange due to the way your phone renders two side-by-side images to create the 3D effect.

When you’re wearing Google Cardboard, it’s a full-fledged, head-sensing VR experiment that I didn’t need to strap on a heavy headset to get. No, it’s not quite as high-resolution or fancy as a premium VR headset like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, but both of those devices appear to be targeted at the higher-end market.

But Cardboard works well, and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than some of the cheaper alternatives like the $US200 Samsung Gear VR, which also requires a high-end Samsung smartphone. With Cardboard, you’ll even be able to watch Cardboard-ready VR videos directly from YouTube starting this summer.

In fact, Google also announced Cardboard Expeditions today — a system to use Cardboard and a classroom’s existing smartphones, plus a tablet, to take kids on virtual field trips.

Unfortunately, Google Cardboard can’t solve one big problem with virtual reality:

You still look like a total dingus when you’re using it.

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