Google Cardboard seemed like a sort of comical novelty when it was first introduced last year, but yesterday's Google I/O conference keynote showed that the tech giant is doubling down on the concept. On its best day, it Cardboard looks little better than a toy View-Master knockoff. Comprised of a literal cardboard box, a few lenses, and a magnet, hobbyists could put together a device together for about $4. Then, all they have to do is drop their smartphone into it to get a cheap but satisfying virtual reality experience.
People are putting down their bets on which headset will usher in the VR revolution. Among the most prominent is Oculus VR, which Facebook acquired for $2 billion last year. Next is Sony's Project Morpheus, and lastly, the hit that came from out of nowhere is the HTC Vive. Without a doubt, these are some of the heavy hitters people generally associate with the term "virtual reality," and they promise to fully immerse users in a different reality. But virtual reality seems like the revolution that's forever stuck on the horizon. Between the cost of the hardware and technical challenges, it's hard to guess how well or quickly VR will take off, which is why a simple origami box for your smartphone might turn out to be the most ingenious device of them all.
Although the high-tech devices will always deliver the richest and deepest experiences, but oftentimes, the key to getting people to quickly adopt a technology is accessibility. Cardboard frames are now made by a number of manufacturers from materials other than cardboard, like aluminum, but the device is still the cheapest way for people to experience a sense of virtual reality. Smartphones are currently in use by billions of people, and they tend to be upgraded in shorter cycles than computers and console systems, so problems with the experience can be worked out in relatively short time.
The affordability and simplicity brings virtual reality to places it might not otherwise reach, like the classroom, where Google's Expeditions project promises to take students to far-off locations around the world. Virtual tours and events are the definitely where VR is headed, and Facebook made no secret about taking Oculus in that direction. More to the point, Cardboard makes it possible for a generation of kids to grow up experiencing VR first hand, which may motivate them to adopt more sophisticated devices when they grow older.
Additionally, Google is in a very good position to help create a greater demand for VR experiences, starting this summer with support for 3D YouTube videos that can be viewed on smartphones. It'll just be a matter of time before Google Street View gets full VR functionality, and given the Jump video camera array (16 GoPro cameras arranged in a circle for surround video) revealed at Google I/O, there's great potential for a flood of virtual 3D video content.
Of course, it will most likely be a combination of these experiences and video games that will fully usher in the VR era. People will naturally want to do more than look around a virtual reality world. They'll want to interact with it too. There are already a number of games developed for the Cardboard experience, with more on the way, and they're bound to spread because the Cardboard SDK isn't limited to Android phones. Cardboard games and experiences can also be developed for iOS, guaranteeing widespread accessibility.
It sure doesn't look like much - just a bit a cardboard, lenses, a magnet and a smartphone. But that's the beauty of it. Cardboard could be the breakthrough device enthusiasts have been waiting for, sneaking in to help usher everyone into a new reality.