Google made something called Cardboard?
Just about every major tech company is interested in some form of Virtual Reality, and Google's interests stretch across several forms of this technology. Cardboard is the result of a side project from David Coz that quickly became a surprise giveaway at Google's developer conference two years ago. The idea was to create a container that could turn any phone into a virtual reality headset by giving the uses lenses in a box to create the 3D immersion feel. Since every smartphone has a gyroscope and high resolution displays, building software that allowed users to turn their heads in space while holding this box up to their eyes was an early way to show how Virtual Reality could be available to everyone.
Fast forward to today, and there are now well over 100 Google Cardboard apps available for Android phones and iPhones alike, all designed to be placed in this simple container and transport the wearer to a different 360-degree environment.
So it's made of actual cardboard?
Google's original design and several of the designs that followed have been made of cardboard with plastic lenses and a rubber band to hold your phone in place. Those designs are far from your only option, however. Google has made Cardboard something any company can manufacture, and as a result there are now dozens of options to choose from Some Cardboard models are still made of actual cardboard, but many are made of plastic.
In some promotional efforts, Google Cardboard designs have been made from McDonalds Happy Meal boxes and even Budweiser beer packaging. These options are designed to be temporary and fragile, but encourage the user to re-purpose the packaging for their purchase in order to peek into the VR world by putting their phone in the container and holding it up to their faces.
I have to hold this box up to my face the whole time?
Most Google Cardboard designs are built to be held to your face for a short period of time, and as a result do not include straps to keep the box mounted to your face. Almost all Google Cardboard models include a physical button on the box that is used to interact with menus in Cardboard apps, which usually makes the act of holding the box to your face a little easier to deal with.
There are also options out there with straps and padding to make sure you can comfortably hold your Cardboard to you head for extended periods of time, but the added materials usually end in a noticeably higher price tag.
Does every phone work with this?
Not every Google Cardboard unit is build the same way, so there are versions that aren't big enough for 6-inch phones. The models that support large phones are typically clearly labeled, but not all of them will fit every phone.
The most popular versions of Cardboard, specifically the ViewMaster VR that was built with Mattel for that nostalgia pull, works with almost every phone you can buy today. The screen size doesn't matter as much since the software will fit the image to make sure the lenses can be used to fill your field of vision, so you aren't getting more VR with a larger display.
Is this just for looking at 360-degree pictures and videos?
Not at all, there's a ton of incredible things you can do with Cardboard. Apps exist for watching 360-degree photos and videos, but there are also more in-depth experiences for exploring wrecked ships buried at the bottom of the ocean or seeing a star map by looking all around you. You can't walk around in these experiences like you can PC-based VR systems, but the 360-degree view is not limited to a static experience.
There are also plenty of games available for Google Cardboard. Space shooters, survival horror games, and more than a couple of flying and exploring games exist already. These can be played on any phone, and do a great job fully immersing you in the experience.
So I can't walk around while looking through Cardboard?
Not unless you want to get really dizzy or run into a wall. Cardboard apps operate in a fixed point in space, so when you start an app everything is happening in a bubble around your head. You can look up and down, left and right, spin all the way around, but taking a step in any direction or leaning to try and get closer is not going change where you are positioned in the app.
This is safe for children?
Sort of. Cardboard is designed to be used in short bursts of 15 minutes or less, and in that situation there's no chance of damage to a child's vision. Extending beyond the 30 minute mark has been a point of concern among pediatricians, so monitoring your child as they use Cardboard is appropriate.
Google has been working to introduce Cardboard into classrooms for virtual field trips controlled by the teacher. The Expeditions Pioneer Program puts teachers in control of special software on a tablet that controls what the kids can see through Cardboard, which creates a guided field trip to enhance a particular lesson. Google has been slowly working with schools all over the world to make this a reality, and so far it has worked quite well.
This is cool! Where do I get one?
Google Cardboard is available in several forms, and as such can be purchased from a bunch of locations. If you want to walk into a physical store and pick up something, the Mattel ViewMaster VR is going to be the easiest to find. If you're looking for something less expensive or something you can strap to your face, you can find several options in a variety of price points on Amazon.