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Google's Cardboard headset, fully assembled
Google’s Cardboard headset, fully assembled

Developers who attended the Google I/O conference in San Francisco today were given two things to thank them for their attendance: a new Android Wear smartwatch (either the LG G Watch or the Samsung Gear Live) and a mysterious cardboard envelope with the I/O logo laser cut into the front.

When it was first announced, many people were hoping that Google was secretly handing out a free tablet, since the box seemed to be about the right size. As it turns out, that couldn’t have been farther from the case.

That cardboard envelope – appropriately named “Cardboard” – doubles as a virtual reality headset.

Cardboard hardware, before assembly

Once users open it up, they’re met with instructions about how to put together the viewer, and slide in an Android phone that can then be used to experience environments in virtual reality using the Cardboard Android app or by loading a handful of Chrome experiments in their phone’s web browser. The phone displays two images side-by-side on its screen, one for each eye, in order to create a 3D effect.

The cardboard given to developers includes a NFC tag that will automatically open the Cardboard app on a phone when it’s inserted, so that users can automatically thrust into the VR experience.

The cardboard frame started as a 20 percent project from a pair of employees at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris, and has now led to Google launching support for using Android phones as VR devices.

Interestingly, the approach Google took with Cardboard mirrors what Oculus VR did with its first development kit. The screen in the first Rift headset was a re-purposed smartphone display that then used software to show one image for each eye. Today’s Google news comes just a day after Oculus announced that it reached an agreement to acquire Seattle-based hardware design firm Carbon Design, in order to improve the design of its products.

Users who want to give the VR experience a try for themselves can download the plans here, and cut out their own Cardboard frame.

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