"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.
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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.
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.
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"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.
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"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."