Google’s last surviving VR product is dead. Today the company stopped selling the Google Cardboard VR viewer on the Google Store, the last move in a long wind-down of Google’s once-ambitious VR efforts. The message on the Google Store, which was first spotted by Android Police, reads, “We are no longer selling Google Cardboard on the Google Store.”
Google Cardboard was a surprise hit at Google I/O 2015 and moved the entry point for VR lower than anyone had imagined previously. The device was a literal piece of cardboard, shaped like a VR headset, with special plastic lenses. Google built a Cardboard app for Android and iOS, which would let any suitably high-end phone power the headset. The landscape display split into left and right views for your eyes, the phone hardware rendered a VR game, and the accelerometers did 3-DoF (degrees of freedom) head tracking. There was even a cardboard action button on the handset that would boop the touchscreen with a capacitive pad, so you could aim with your head and select options in a VR environment. Since the product was just cardboard and plastic lenses with no electronics whatsoever, Google sold the headset for just $20.
After cardboard, Google started to scale up its VR ambitions. In 2016, Google also launched an upscaled version of Google Cardboard, the Google Daydream VR headset. This was a plastic and cloth version of a phone-powered VR headset, with the key improvements of a head strap and a small controller, for $80.
Next, Google started to pile on software support. VR support also was built into Android 7 Nougat in 2016, allowing Google to make latency-reducing graphics pipeline improvements in the core OS. Google started certifying devices for enhanced “Daydream” support, laying out best hardware and software practices for VR. Android got a VR home screen and added a special notification style so apps could still alert you in the 3D VR interface. A VR version of the Play Store let users download the latest VR experiences in 3D. VR support came to YouTube and Google Street View, and together with Mozilla, the Chrome team launched WebVR. Google’s best app was Tilt Brush, a killer piece of VR painting software.
In 2018, Google even roped OEMs into making standalone Daydream VR hardware, so instead of being powered by a phone, Android and all the usual phone bits were integrated into a standalone VR headset. The first one announced was the Lenovo Mirage Solo.
Google’s VR legacy
As in many other areas, Google was very enthusiastic about VR for a few years, and then the company quickly lost interest when it didn’t see immediate success. The VR shutdown started in 2019, when Google omitted Daydream support from the Pixel 4 and killed the Daydream VR headset line. Google put out a VR post-mortem statement saying there was resistance to using a phone for VR, which cut off access to all your apps, and that the company hadn’t seen “the broad consumer or developer adoption we had hoped.” It was also around this time that Google open sourced the Cardboard project. VR support in Android was stripped out of consumer phones with 2020’s release of Android 11, and Google quit Tilt Brush development in January 2021, choosing to open source the app under Apache 2.0.
Google might have quit VR, but Cardboard and Android’s VR legacy live on. Android should still stick around for a long while in VR, even if it’s not officially sanctioned by Google. Oculus and Samsung originally teamed up on the Gear VR, a fancy, plastic VR viewer that was powered by Samsung’s Android phone line. While Samsung has quit phone VR, too, all of Oculus’ standalone “Quest” VR headsets still run Android. Standalone VR headsets are always powered by ARM chips and other off-the-shelf smartphone parts, so Android—however, forked or stripped-down you want to make it—will be a top pick to power this smartphone-adjacent hardware. It already has all the hardware support and APIs you could want, so why re-invent the wheel?
Three years after Cardboard, Nintendo took Google’s “cheap cardboard accessory” idea and ran with it, creating the Nintendo Labo products. Labo packaged Nintendo Switch software with a boatload of pre-cut, printed cardboard sheets, which could be assembled into all sorts of cheap peripherals like a cardboard piano, or a robot suit. The Labo VR kit was an exact Google Cardboard copy: a cardboard VR headset used the Nintendo Switch as the display, letting you view Nintendo’s worlds in 3D.
Google’s VR division has turned its attention (at least for a while) to AR instead of VR. Google’s ARCore framework lets developers make augmented reality apps for Android and iOS, and the company regularly ships AR improvements on Android phones. With Apple reportedly working on a VR headset, though, you’ve got to wonder how long Google’s fickle product direction will be able to stay away from VR.