Virtual reality headsets are becoming a lot like smartwatches: anyone and everyone who can possibly make one is trying to get a piece of the pie before they go mainstream. I Am Cardboard, one of the most popular assemblers of Google Cardboard headsets, is now asking for crowdfunding dollars to make a consumer-grade headset that builds on the foundations of Google's cheap developer kit.
Google Cardboard was always a bit of a Trojan horse. At first blush, a virtual reality headset made of cardboard might sound like a strategy to bring VR to developing countries, but it's actually a very clever long-term plan. Google wants to get as many developers as possible making VR apps and games for Google's Play Store, and designing a dirt-cheap developer's kit isn't a bad way to do that.
But at what point does Cardboard morph into "Android VR" (or something like that) and go consumer-grade? We may be seeing the first signs of that, as one of the most popular Cardboard assemblers is making a VR headset that looks like a direct rival to the Galaxy Note-powered Samsung Gear VR. Meet I Am Cardboard's XG VR Headset.
The XG VR looks more like consumer-grade VR products and prototypes than it does a Google Cardboard kit. Rather than being made of paper, it shifts to plastic (looking curiously similar to the Gear VR), and instead of cardboard edges jabbing into your face, it has a comfortable foam pad lining its back. The company even says it has a 100-degree field of view, the same as the Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 (DK2).
Like Google Cardboard dev kits, the XG can use nearly any recent smartphone (as small as the iPhone 5, or as big as the Nexus 6) to provide its display and power, with adjustable grips moving inward and outward to compensate for the different phone sizes. And while Android is where most Google Cardboard development has been, the headset is software-agnostic, and can, in theory, work with VR-friendly apps from any mobile platform (except for Gear VR apps, which will only run on the Samsung/Oculus headset).
The XG VR could be significant in that it shows Google's long-term plans for Cardboard starting to materialize. But, on the other hand, we've also learned that making a VR headset that looks kinda like the Oculus Rift is much easier than making one that comes remotely close to matching its quality. Our hands-on with Razer's VR headset, for example, was an underwhelming experience – and that's a headset from a deep-pocketed company with years of experience (and clout) in the gaming world.
Content is another area where Oculus VR is far ahead of the pack, and Cardboard-based products like the XG will have their hands full trying to catch up. There's a solid little batch of Cardboard-friendly apps in the Play Store, but it pales in comparison to the Gear VR's lineup of games and videos (which we find to be superior in both quality and quantity). And that's with Oculus VR telling us it's been holding back Gear VR content for early this year, when its store starts selling paid apps.
Even with those compromises, though, the XG VR could provide a cheaper and more flexible mobile VR option. As nice as the Galaxy Note 4 is, this is one way to introduce owners of other phones to the magical work of VR. Even if it isn't likely to be nearly as magical here.
I Am Cardboard is still raising funds for the headset, and it's already more than doubled its US$20,000 Kickstarter goal with 43 days to go. Right now the minimum pledge to get a headset is US$59. It's also still at least a few months away from getting into consumers' hands: the company estimates a May 2015 ship date.