You can play Steam VR games with Google Cardboard, but be careful.

Trying VR is the first and best way to get someone excited about VR, but that raises some interesting challenges. The HTC Vive isn't exactly what you'd call portable, and carting around the $600 Oculus Rift alongside your very expensive PC still isn't a great option. If you find yourself without a VR headset, yet still curious about the experience, there's a DIY project in your future! With Google Cardboard and a couple of apps, you can peer into the world of Oculus and SteamVR to get a decent idea of what makes these things so much fun.

What you need to get started

SteamVR in Google Cardboard

If you have a PC capable of driving SteamVR, this is surprisingly easy. Install VRidge from the Google Play Store, and SteamVR on your PC. VRidge will instruct you to install Riftcat on your PC, and then you're ready to get started.

  1. Open Riftcat and select your Android phone from the list of available targets.
  2. Select Play Steam VR Games from the menu.
  3. Open SteamVR and select a game.

VRidge streams everything happening in SteamVR to your phone, making it so you can use the motion sensors on your phone to look around the virtual world. From here, you can set your Vive to Standing Room Only mode and use any SteamVR app. These instructions give you a good passive experience and let you see a couple of apps, but to gain a more active experience and be able to experience more of the Vive ecosystem, you'll want to either connect a gamepad or set up your Leap Motion to act as your hands in Steam VR.

VRidge

Oculus Rift in Google Cardboard

If you have a PC capable of playing Oculus Rift games, install the Oculus Store on your desktop and VRidge on your Android phone. VRidge will instruct you to install Riftcat on your PC, and you'll be good to go!

  1. Open Riftcat and select your Android phone from the list of available targets.
  2. Select Play Oculus Rift Games from the menu.
  3. Place your phone in the headset.

VRidge streams everything happening in the Oculus software, so all you need is an Xbox controller — or a reasonable facsimile — and you'll be able to play many of the games available. Because your phone can't detect movement in space, games that rely on leaning or standing at times won't work well in this setup. You still get a great passive VR experience, and can access a ton of apps and games, but not everything will work.

Leap Motion

Adding a Leap Motion controller

If you want hand controllers in VR through Google Cardboard, Leap Motion is how you get there. Well, sort of. You aren't connecting Leap Motion to your phone; instead, you're connecting the small tracker to your PC and mounting it on your headset. This means there is a cable tethering you to your PC, so you'll need to be sure it's the right length and doesn't become disconnected.

  1. Install the Orion Beta software from Leap Motion
  2. Run the Orion Tutorial.
  3. Install a Leap supported VR app.
  4. Mount your Leap Motion to your headset.

Orion doesn't work everywhere yet, but developers are working on tools that will make it easier for your hands to become controllers for every aspect of Steam VR; even the home screen! For the apps that do support Leap Motion, like AltSpace VR, you only need to hold your hands out in front of the sensor to see them in VR.

VRidge

Is this worth it?

Setting up Google Cardboard to play Oculus or Vive experiences isn't the same by a long shot as using an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Even with a capable PC, streaming means dropped frames and using your phone for head tracking means sluggish response times. This works OK if you aren't moving around real fast, but is not in any way a replacement for either VR headset. It is, however, something you can do for under $100 if you have a capable PC. That alone makes it something you'll have fun trying just to see what the apps for these other platforms are like.