Why Google Cardboard – not Oculus – is crucial to the future of VR

Your Android phone and a pizza box is the start of a billion dollar industry
Why Cardboard is driving VR tech

"Google Cardboard is a joke… right?"

That was the wide initial reaction when the company gave away viewer kits to I/O attendees last year: virtual reality – all you need is your Android phone and a pizza box. It's far from the future anyone imagined for VR, and anyone eager for the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive might see Cardboard as a cheap knock-off.

Essential reading: The best Google Cardboard games and experiences

Despite the cynicism, however, Cardboard is thriving. By the end of last year, Google admitted that the "response was kind of delightful," and said that more than half a million viewers were out in the wild. In May, the company released a second-generation blueprint that supported more and larger phones, and brought in iPhone compatibility. And by July, Google bumped the total tally of distributed viewers to more than 1.1 million.

But Google isn't actually making and selling those kits and pre-made models: it's upstart companies like Unofficial Cardboard and I Am Cardboard, or established accessory-makers such as DODOcase. They've built thriving businesses around the low-cost VR viewers, and have even expanded what it means to be "Cardboard" with new materials and added features. And while the shells themselves may seem disposable, the makers believe their efforts will have a lasting impact on the future of VR.

Cardboard craze

When I/O attendees got their kits and Google posted the plans, DIY aficionados the world over embarked on their own Cardboard creations—but many were quickly stymied by the need to hunt down specific lenses and magnets that weren't widely available, at least in small quantities. Companies like Unofficial Cardboard and Knoxlabs quickly filled the void, offering up complete kits with foldable viewers, as well as pre-folded, ready-to-use viewers.

Check these out: Best VR apps for iPhone

"By the evening of day one, it was clear that the average individual was never going to be able to get the parts to make these viewers," says Dave Vinzant, CEO and founder of Unofficial Cardboard. "Within a couple of days, I secured bulk stocks of all the raw materials. It was sloppy and expensive at first, but I did it in less than 48 hours. We had the first mass-produced, laser-cut Google Cardboard viewers up on eBay, Amazon, and our own website by that first weekend."

Vinzant says the company had 600 orders within 24 hours of its first press coverage. Taron Lizagub, founder of Knoxlabs, has a similar story: they had 500+ orders of their own viewers within a few days of going live. The interest was there, but Cardboard was no longer a hobby: it was a business with eager competitors, and everyone had to up their game.

DODOcase, which made its name on high-end, book-inspired iPad cases, opted to use higher-quality materials to make its early mark, along with easier-to-assemble viewers. "I often tell people that when you think about Cardboard, you can think about the box that your pizza came in or your can think about the box your iPad came it," says CEO Craig Dalton. "DODOcase endeavors to the latter."

And many companies have aimed to do more with the Cardboard concept. DODOcase has a ball cap mount available for its viewers. Knoxlabs makes an aluminum and metal viewer with something of a steampunk edge to it. And after working with an optometrist to upgrade its lenses three times on its original viewer, Unofficial Cardboard launched a 2.0 Plus viewer this summer with adjustable lenses and suction cup phone grip—and an optional head strap. Even toy company Mattel just released a plastic View-Master VR viewer based on Cardboard.

The ingredients for success

Added features bring added cost, of course, but even the slightly more advanced Cardboard viewers sell for about $20-25 from most companies. If you already have a compatible smartphone, it's a small price to pay to get a taste of virtual reality. And that's the whole appeal: Cardboard works with the hardware you already own, making it highly accessible.

True, there's a wide difference in experience. The depth of interaction possible on an Oculus Rift with Oculus Touch motion controllers is miles ahead of what you can do on a smartphone with a cardboard casing. Most Cardboard-compatible apps at this point are visual experiences more than significantly interactive ones; you'll watch a concert, ride a rollercoaster, or look freely around photosphere environments, for example.

Despite all that, mobile VR can be very immersive. You don't need in-depth interactions to be wowed by Cardboard-powered VR, and the app selection will only improve with time. And the fact that it's so affordable to purchase or relatively easy to make, along with using hardware that most of us already have, makes Cardboard a perfect entry-level option.

Read this: Best VR games for all the major platforms

"Anyone who has actually tried out a Cardboard viewer will tell you that the VR experience it offers is really quite impressive, even powerful. In my opinion, that experience is enhanced by the fact that it is so accessible, " says Lizagub. "When you have something that is so accessible and of increasingly high quality, then the possibilities are truly limitless."

The Oculus Rift and Sony's PlayStation VR will raise the stakes, and push the limits of what virtual reality is capable of—at a cost of hundreds or more pounds, depending on how much additional hardware you need to bring each experience to life. But Cardboard makers don't believe they'll be left behind when that happens. Quite the contrary.

"Casual VR is going to be a real and large market. It will benefit from the higher-end units hitting the market as consumers will be curious, but unwilling to pay the high price for hardware. Both sides of the market complement each other," affirms Dalton. "Oculus and PlayStation should be publicly supporting anything that gets a 'first use' for a new customer. The larger the market of people who have tried VR, the larger the market for all hardware will be."

He adds, "Cardboard VR is the most important piece of hardware in the industry. Its success will lead to a vibrant, profitable industry; its failure will lead to years of VR being relegated to geeks in basements. The entire industry needs to get behind giving users a first taste of VR."

Oculus owes more to Cardboard than you think…

Accessibility is a key element in more than just cost: virtual reality still has everything to prove. Every rave reaction to an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive demo read on the internet doesn't mean squat if you haven't tried VR for yourself. Given the fact that the promise of VR has been on the horizon for decades now, it's crucial that people have an opportunity to try it before they spend big.

That's where Cardboard makes perhaps its biggest impact, delivering a good enough VR experience to get people started. If that does the trick, then congratulations: you have a phone-based viewer for apps and games. If you want to stick with phone VR but go bigger, you might consider Samsung's Gear VR headset. It's made of sturdier plastic and supports a controller, making it an ideal "middle ground" device. However, it only works with a few Samsung phones, and it's pricier than Cardboard.

If you really love the Cardboard experience and can imagine spending your nights and weekends locked into elaborate virtual worlds, then maybe you'll be in the market for a Rift or Vive. And if you hate it… well, the viewer couldn't have cost much. It's not a huge loss.

But for those who might be convinced to invest in higher-end VR, missing that first step with Cardboard might kill a lot of intentions. Virtual reality is new and unfamiliar technology, and it needs a way into people's homes before it vies for their hearts.

"Do you know why 3D televisions never really took off? The technology was too expensive for the average individual to experience," claims Vinzant. "If the masses never get to try a new technology, they won't fully appreciate it enough to create demand, and without reasonable demand, resources—both developers and monetary investments—won't flow into the industry to give it life."

In other words, that's the "darkest timeline" future that Dalton alluded to: the one in which VR doesn't find wide, mainstream acceptance, and remains a niche interest for the dwindling hardcore. Given all the enthusiasm around VR and talent bringing it to life, that seems unlikely. But the point is taken: silly as Cardboard may seem, its role in the future of the VR industry cannot be overstated. And it may continue to be the starting point for many new VR users, even as more advanced, PC/console-connected headsets proliferate.

"Headsets like the Rift and the Vive are amazing, but they aren't flexible enough for everyday use in a variety of spheres—at least not yet," says Lizagub. "Cardboard, on the other hand, or phone-based viewers like our Aluminum, do have that sense of flexibility which makes them available to everyone, everywhere. It's really amazing, and a shame that this awesome and affordable technology is so underrated."



  • fb_101009769 says:

    I've tried Cardboard - the built-in accelerometers in cell phones are too slow, so rotation framerates are unbearably juddery.  Good way to turn people off from VR.

    • PCMasterRace says:

      You probably have a shitty phone. Though my only purpose for the conception of cardboard is to give me more advantages for hunting humans with my external vision modules and a virtual hud.

    • PCMasterRace says:

      You should buy a cardboard with a better suit and a higher field of vision to improve your experience. You're probably experiencing problems because your phone isn't good. Or either that you just use the conception of cardboard for your own curiosities instead abusing the concept of cardboard.

    • toolboy says:

      Ummm. No. $2.50 for cardboard. Regardless if others are superior for the average person who have never used any VR will be just like the first time any of us tried it we were like "wooooooooooooow!". Might want to re-think your logic.

  • Korolov says:

    The latest numbers from Google are that there are 15 MILLION of Cardboard-compatible devices out there now.

    And they're not just being made out of Cardboard. More than 100 Chinese manufacturers are making them, and some of them are EXCELLENT. I just got a LingVR set and the field of view is wider than the Gear VR. Pair it with a latest-model smartphone and the experience isn't as good as the Vive but it is good enough to watch movies in a virtual theater, etc...

    Chinese press reports show that the two top Chinese e-commerce sites are selling 300,000 headsets a month.

    The New York Times is giving away a million headsets next month.

    Mattel's View-Master, Russia's Fibrum, and MergeVR in the UK are all hitting retail counters this month (or have already done so). All three are Cardboard-compatible.

    It's completely possible that we'll hit 20 million or more headsets in user hands by the end of the year.

    And that's before the ones who get all the media attention -- Oculus, Sony, and Vive -- have even released their consumer versions.


  • truecrusader says:

    found a compact cardboard viewer @ a vmware gig the other week, knew exactly what it was when I unfolded it as I'd read articles dismissing it so I didn't expect much but was totally blown away, since then I've started building my own custom specs for my nexus 7, just waiting on lenses.... Now this is the only way to play games if only the big game studios would offer up titles nevertheless I'm not here anymore, got go buy a Bluetooth game pad

  • MarkDiamond says:

    One currently overlooked aspect of the Cardboard phenom, is that these immediately allow for the viewing of 3D stereograms both historic and self made. Interestingly, it's been corroborated by my experience and that of many others that 3D content of static scenarios has more impact that moving scenes. This is probably based on the fact that the brain has an extended opportunity to soak up and interpret the nuances of a 3D scene without the disruption of a quick cut to another scene. As a die hard stereopath, I look forward to 3D images being enjoyed by the largest group of users since the late 1800s. Historically, the first huge application of the photographic process was the creation of millions of stereograms which were enjoyed on Victorian wooden  Stereopticons, they were the Cardboard of it's day.

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