For the better part of the 20th Century, peeling a snapshot out of your Polaroid instant camera was as social as photography got. But 50 years after Land invented the instant camera, Polaroid was disrupted by digital cameras. By 2010, after declaring bankruptcy twice in a decade, Polaroid was an empty shell of a company; so irrelevant that if you showed a kid a One Step camera, they’d just think it was some weird 3-D sculpture of the Instagram icon.
But Polaroid’s latest camera, the Cube, might be the most important camera Polaroid has released in decades. It’s certainly the one that has the broadest appeal. As designed by San Francisco-based design studio Ammunition, the Polaroid Cube is an action cam that wants to be for kids and parents what GoPro is for people who fling themselves off of skyscrapers . . . all while returning to the ideals that made Polaroid great to begin with: simplicity, instant gratification, socialization, and fun.
“I’m old enough that all the original equity that Polaroid created with products like the Land Camera and One Step still lives in my heart,” says Robert Brunner, the founder of Ammunition and an Apple design alumnus. “With the Cube, we wanted to make a camera that was spiritually in line with the best products Polaroid ever made.” But still different: a physical camera that is as easy-to-use as an app.
Having made its big splash at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronic Show, the Polaroid Cube is like a drop of candy in the palm. Pictures don’t really do justice to how small and cute it is, which could go a long way towards making people want to pick it up. And it’s super easy to use. Capable of recording 1080p video and capturing up to five-megapixel still shots, the Polaroid Cube only has one button, making it pretty much foolproof to operate: just tap it to record, tap it to stop. Then you plug it into your computer when you want to download the video.
Nothing fancy. Just cute and well-executed. But why do you need it? “That thing in your pocket? Your smartphone? It’s replaced the instant camera. That’s a reality that is facing everyone making cameras out there,” says Brunner.
So how does a dedicated camera even fit into people’s lives anymore? It fits in by doing things your smartphone can’t easily do. A camera you don’t mind throwing to your toddler and letting him use, because it’s cushioned in soft rubber and nigh indestructible. A waterproof camera that you take to the water-slide park. A magnetic camera you slap onto your bicycle’s handle bars on your ride home without a mount. These are the things the Polaroid Cube aspires to be, and the major way Polaroid hopes to differentiate the product from the incumbent, GoPro.
“GoPros are a great product, but they are inaccessible to a lot of people,” says Brunner. “Let’s face facts: not everyone is interested strapping a camera to their helmet and base-jumping off skyscrapers, but that’s the GoPro ideal. We wanted to make something on the other end of the spectrum. Something you could turn on and give to your 18-month-old while he storms through the house.” Something, in other words, that doesn’t have the look of something you strap to an extreme sports guy’s head before he bungees off a burning zeppelin plunging into a canyon. A camera that is as cute as an app.
That’s what the Cube wants to be: the action cam for everyone, signaled not just by its one button design, but it’s sturdy industrial design and approachable Polaroid visual aesthetic. And after a week of testing it, I think that’s what makes it, like the great Polaroid instant cameras that have preceded it, such a great camera to pass around a party. It’s fun, it’s friendly, it’s social, and it’s inviting in both appearance and price: a Polaroid Cube will cost you just $99, about $30 cheaper than the cheapest GoPro. It’s a recommitment to the very ideals that made Polaroid great to begin with.