Google I/O is one of the best conferences around for swag. In general, conference swag is pretty hit and miss, but Google is known for giving out samples of its latest hardware for developers to take home and keep. In the run up to Google I/O 2014, there were plenty of rumors regarding this year's freebies. Would we get the much lusted after Moto 360 watch? What about a Nexus 8? Well, Google did give attendees a Moto 360 (they'll get them when it comes out later this summer), and everyone will be getting the choice between the LG G Watch and Samsung's Galaxy Gear Live. However, one of the most fun freebies at Google I/O is Cardboard, the origami VR headset that users assemble themselves like a piece of really frustrating IKEA furniture.
Once you do get Cardboard together (and download the dedicated application on the painfully spotty WiFi here in the convention center), the whole package is pretty amazing. You click using a magnetic ring slider on the side, and you go back by tipping the device to portrait mode. There's a few applications to choose from. Google Earth, Street View, and a cute, interactive cartoon world called 'Windy Day' are among them. They vary in quality. One app, Exhibit, just allows you to look at 3D renders of objects from different angles. It's cool, but it's not exactly the VR experience we've been craving since we first tried Oculus Rift. On the flip side, Google Earth or Windy Day are both excellent. Even though Windy Day is a cartoon land, it feels like you're there, and we loved learning about the Palace of Versailles with the touring application. Everyone who tried these apps in the press room was blown away. Below is our own Dan Howley, mesmerized. This was his first VR experience, and he gave it two thumbs up (though he did say it didn't really play nice with his glasses, which will be an issue for anyone who doesn't want to wear contacts).
It's not quite on the same level as Oculus Rift. It's flickery, and because the headset is made of stiff cardboard, it doesn't sit flush against your face, there's light leakage on the sides, and you can sometimes see little bits of real life in your peripheral vision. However, the overall VR effect is there, and you still get that magical feeling that anyone who's tried the likes of Oculus will recognize. The feeling is that this is the future, and it's here now and it's awesome. With general release of Oculus still a ways away, this is an awesome way to spread the VR joy and allow people to try the technology for themselves. Google could easily sell these for $30, and the early adopters would jump right on it, just to see what it's like. Unfortunately, that's unlikely to happen as it's just a 20 percent project that made it to I/O.