One year ago, Google introduced its first step into the fast-growing world of virtual reality — but Google Cardboard felt more like the whimsical side of Google having fun with a trend rather than embracing it head-on with a "serious" product. However, as the year went on, it became clear that Cardboard was no joke. Google already sells a host of different Cardboard kits from various manufacturers and is also offering an SDK to help developers build apps for Cardboard.
Today, the company's giving Google I/O attendees a new version of its Cardboard hardware, with a few key changes. For starters, it's big — it can now support phones up to 6 inches. It's a logical place for Google to go, given the size of the flagship Nexus 6 smartphone. There's also a new button — instead of the old magnetic button, the new one is a piece of conductive foam that works as the primary input device when using Cardboard. And perhaps most importantly, it now works with the iPhone as well as Android. Yes, Cardboard is just a holder, and you could pop an iPhone into the first version (as well as some third-party ones), but a new SDK and Cardboard app means iOS is now fully supported.
The last change is that it's even easier to assemble — it's a three-step process, and it was so simple I wasn't sure that I did it right. But it only took a few seconds to slip a Nexus 6 or an iPhone 6 in and start trying out the different VR options included in the Cardboard demo app. If you've used Cardboard before, this new hardware will be very familiar — the experience of using it is nearly identical despite the larger size.
The experience using Cardboard with an iPhone is basically identical to using it with an Android phone — there are a few different demo apps (including a fabulous kaleidoscope demo), but other than that performance and the overall experience was nearly identical. Cardboard still offers surprisingly high-quality VR considering it's basically a piece of cardboard and a phone. It's a nice way to get a taste of VR, but there are a few downsides.
A small tweak so cardboard can work with bigger phones
Most notably, the headset isn't very good at blocking out ambient light, as there's nothing to fit it tightly over your eyes. And it's still a rather stuttery experience — Google Earth was impressive, but moving my head around when following the mouse in the Windy Day Spotlight Story on the Nexus 6 was a rather jerky experience. That said, the low-impact, easy to use nature of Cardboard means it'll likely be something I turn back to when I want to mess around in virtual reality. The same will probably go for all the other I/O attendees who just walked out of the keynote with their own free Cardboard headset. In fact, now that Cardboard will work with iOS as well as Android, a whole host of new users will get a chance to give it a shot.