Step aside, Oculus Rift: Cardboard is Google's DIY VR headset for Android devices

When you think of virtual reality today, you probably think of the Oculus Rift or some mammoth setup that involves heavy machinery for your head, lots of wires, and a person fumbling around in another realm. But Google had something else in mind: cardboard.

At the company's annual I/O developers conference earlier this morning, Sundar Pichai, an executive vice president who oversees Android, announced that all attendees would get a mysterious package. He didn't elaborate about what was inside the package, though we now know Google gave out a virtual reality headset made from cardboard. Specifically, it's a do-it-yourself starter kit or housing unit for your Android smartphone.

Virtual reality has been a dream for decades. It has yet to fully emerge though, because the technology requires expensive, specialised hardware that not everyone, including developers, can afford. Google has come up with a solution however in which a smartphone drives the VR experiences. That solution is Cardboard, and it comes with an open software toolkit that makes writing VR software simple (like developing a web or mobile app).

And that's the key. Google isn't trying to make cheap virtual reality hardware. It is enticing developers to jump aboard and further the VR effort: "We want everyone to experience virtual reality in a simple, fun, and inexpensive way," explained Google on Cardboard's site. "By making it easy and inexpensive to experiment with VR, we hope to encourage developers to build the next generation of immersive digital experiences and make them available to everyone."

In order to build Cardboard into a working VR headset, you will need a pair of lenses with a 40mm focal distance, magnets, velcro, a rubber band, and an NFC tag. The NFC tag will enable you to tap a device to the headset and launch the Cardboard app right away. Yup, that's right. Cardboard has an app. Slip your Android device into the cardboard viewer, look through the special lenses, and use the Cardboard app to experience some Google services in virtual reality.

Early examples include flying where you want with Google Earth, watching YouTube videos through an immersive screen, looking around photo spheres, and more. But that's just the tip of the iceberg, potentially, as long as developers take advantage of the software development kit.

Google said Cardboard was created as part of a 20 percent initiative that allows Googlers to work on side projects. Gmail and AdSense are just two ideas that have also come from employees thinking outside of the box when not doing their normal duties.