The best Google Cardboard VR apps

Games, concerts, and other immersive virtual reality experiences—and many are available for free.

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Don't be Card-bored

Cardboard is Google's do-it-yourself gateway into virtual reality, letting you strap your Android phone into a cardboard shell (with a couple of lenses and magnets) and immerse yourself in 3D worlds. It's pretty cheap and easy to get started, and there are dozens of apps to download.

Many aren’t great, admittedly—but some of them are, and there’s a wide selection of different experiences worth exploring. Whether you want interactive games, neat video content with added visual depth, or other curiosities to dig into, these 10 top Cardboard apps should amuse you for some time. And nearly all of them are free, to boot. (Remember: the split left/right images merge into one 3D image when you use the headset.)

Also on ITworld: How to build your own Google Cardboard VR viewer

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Cardboard

There’s more to Google’s app than sorting your VR collection: it also has great demos you can’t get elsewhere. They’re short and/or simple, but overall, it’s a perfect introduction to what Cardboard can do.

The Google Earth demo is especially neat, although very lo-fi: you can fly around cities, which are roughly rendered and have flickering textures, making it unintentionally dreamlike. Windy Day is an adorable 3D cartoon from an ex-Pixar director, Tour Guide lets you view Versailles with narration, and Exhibit shows off cultural artifacts that you can see from all over. And the YouTube and Photo Sphere apps let you view videos or images through the lenses.

Cardboard (Free)

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Proton Pulse

Easily the most fun I’ve had with a VR game, Proton Pulse essentially puts a 3D spin on Breakout—or “one-player Pong” if you haven’t played the old classic. In this case, you’ll move your head to shift the translucent paddle in front of you, and use it to bat a bouncing ball to clear the blocks floating around the play field. 

It’s a simple concept, but for a game that relies entirely on head movements, it’s a lot of fun. Credit that in part to the super crisp, vibrant graphics, which expertly depict the depth of each stage and really show the benefit of gaming in VR. But mainly, Proton Pulse is just a classic, tried-and-true gaming premise that’s smartly tuned for headset play. And it’s a blast.

Proton Pulse (Free)

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VRSE - Sundance Selection

Among VR clips designed only to dazzle, VRSE – Sundance Selection is one of the best around. Evolution of Verse, the star attraction, is a short film full of surreal imagery: a train chugging through a lake until it smashes into your position, bursting into thousands of winged creatures that then transform into confetti.

It takes a weird twist at the end, and the video is just a few minutes long, but it’s worth watching a couple times and sharing with friends. And the app is adding more: there’s a mini-documentary about a Syrian refugee camp, as well as a VICE News doc (co-created by Spike Jonze) about the Millions March in NYC. All of it is free.

VRSE – Sundance Selection (Free)

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Caaaaardboard

Not to be confused with Google’s Cardboard app, Caaaaardboard is a VR conversion of the entertaining AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, an awkwardly titled indie game about freefalling through score gates while spray-painting the buildings on the way down. 

It’s easy to see why it makes for an engaging VR experience, and it truly is effortlessly entertaining. You don’t have to tap anything or use a controller: it’s all about subtly shifting your gaze as you fall, which you’ll do to avoid smashing into buildings or try to rack up a chain of score boosts. It looks great, it’s a lot of fun, and it’ll also test your balance if you opt to play standing up. Bonus!

Caaaaardboard ($2.99)

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Jack White: THIRD-D

Jaunt is making its case for VR with concert footage from notable acts, and if Jack White isn’t your thing, then perhaps Paul McCartney will do the trick. But while Macca’s app just has one song for now, White’s free THIRD-D offering has three tracks shot in a couple different locations, providing much more to see.

And the locations help make the performances memorable. White and his band perform “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” in the outdoors Red Rocks Amphitheatre while a thunderstorm pummels the stage, with lightning in the background and White even slipping and falling in the rain. The other songs were shot at Fenway Park in Boston, which itself proves a majestic setting to look around freely while lights flash and raucous music plays.

Jack White: THIRD-D (Free)

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Glitcher VR

Despite that handy slot in the Cardboard viewer for your phone’s back camera, most current apps don’t make use of it for pass-through or augmented reality features. Glitcher VR does, and while the experience is as simple as putting an array of visual filters on your surroundings, that proves plenty interesting when your normal vision is restricted.

You can enable a Predator-like faux heat-sensing view, or one modeled after old green Apple II monitors. There’s one that flips the color spectrum, and another that detects faces and puts a laughing cartoon character atop them. You can even speak out commands to switch filters, or to grab a photo, screenshot, or video clip. Glitcher provides a lightweight diversion, but it’s well worth seeing.

Glitcher VR (Free)

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Vanguard V

Here's another VR game that's fantastic for the mere minutes it lasts, as it's simply a demo for a still-in-development project. From the same developer of Proton Pulse comes a space shooter akin to Star Fox and others of its ilk, only now you're controlling the armored heroine by subtly moving your head.

Visually, it's the best thing I've played in VR: everything moves fluidly, with lots of effects and pulsing lights hooking you into the world. There isn't much to the gameplay here, however, as you're simply staring at threats to shoot them out of space—and even then, it didn't feel like the shots always came when I expected them to. But it's an enrapturing demo that I'll play again and again until the full version eventually releases.

Vanguard V (Free)

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Orbulus

A lot of the appeal of Cardboard is simply… looking at things, really, but in a way that puts you a little closer to the action. And that’s true with still photos as much as it is with videos. Orbulus proves it so with an array of immersive Photo Spheres that you can explore with your eyes.

You’ll see vivid, 360-degree photos from around the world, whether it’s mingling amidst tourists on aging architecture, looking out over a city surrounded by sparkling blue water, or even taking in the sights within a museum. A small bit of background noise adds to the immersion, making Orbulus an enjoyable little trip around some of the world’s notable views.

Orbulus for Cardboard VR (Free)

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Sisters

Well, this is unsettling. If you’re fond of shock-value horror films, then you’ll surely get a kick out of Sisters. It’s a brief experience set in a room during a thunderstorm, and the pair of young girl dolls might grab your attention. Especially when one disappears and the door opens. And then the other goes missing. And then surely when… look, I’m not going to ruin it for you. 

It’s designed to freak you out, and you better believe that having a headset on your face amplifies the effect—even when you’re expecting an eerie surprise. Based on how effective Sisters is, you can bet that the Play Store will have many more lightly interactive VR scare sessions like this in the future.

Sisters (Free)

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War of Words VR

Many of the VR apps available for Cardboard right now are more demos of what could be rather than full-fledged experiences, and that’s definitely the case with War of Words VR. It’s also the shortest of the immersive worlds showcased here, but it makes a strong impression within just a minute of your time.

War of Words builds a small scene around “The Kiss,” a Siegfried Sassoon poem written during World War I, and acts out the floating text’s grim subject with a rifle and a few soldier silhouettes. Watching the bullet whiz from the chamber to its target as you spin around helps drive home the message in a very visible way, and the app shows a lot of promise for what could be done with more elaborate works.

War of Words VR (Free)