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Google throws its weight behind cheap Cardboard virtual reality

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Stacked up against high-cost and high-tech virtual reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift or Sony's Project Morpheus, Google Cardboard — the company's low-cost VR viewer, made out of actual cardboard — sounds a bit like a joke. But today Google has shown that it's serious about Cardboard, launching a new page that collects some of the best apps for download, and releasing new SDKs for Android and Unity so developers can more easily make apps for Android smartphones that work with the DIY headset.

Google's Cardboard app, also updated today, now highlights Google's favorite Cardboard-compatible Android apps. These selections include "Volvo Reality," the Swedish car manufacturer's attempt to show people the inside of its latest SUVs by strapping a smartphone to their face, and a Paul McCartney concert as seen from the stage. Google hopes to make the creation of these apps easier in the future by releasing new SDKs for developers that the company says simplifies VR-specific issues like lens distortion correction, head tracking, and side-by-side rendering. Cardboard already had a limited Android SDK — the updated version offers more tools — but the Unity SDK is brand new, and could allow developers to create good-looking 3D worlds with relative ease.

The new SDK lets developers create apps in Unity for Cardboard

The headset, originally developed in the weeks leading up to Google's I/O conference, is available to buy for around $20, but Google also allows people to build their own versions. The company today published new building specifications for those who want to make their own Cardboard viewers, with guidelines for those cutting shapes with lasers, machines, or blades.

All Cardboards, bought or home-built, still require a compatible Android smartphone to function, and the headset might never allow experiences as impressive as the Oculus Rift — but with Google's renewed support, and a price of entry that borders on free, it's a cheap window into interesting new virtual worlds.