Google Cardboard has come a long way since Android honcho Sundar Pichai introduced it with a sheepish grin six months ago.
The smartphone virtual reality viewer, made from folded-up cardboard with a pair of attached lenses—you supply an Android phone to provide computing power and a display—has shipped more than 500,000 units as of early December. (You can build your own Cardboard, or buy a ready-made version from not-quite-official sources for under $30.) Google has now added a Play Store showcase for the best Cardboard apps, and released a software development kit to spur even more VR app creation.
For a project that took mere weeks to throw together, Cardboard has done surprisingly well. But its success also puts it in an awkward position, somewhere between the oddball project that Cardboard appeared to be back in June and the serious business that prompted Facebook's $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR in February. As virtual reality matures, is Cardboard prepared to mature with it?
The best and worst thing about virtual reality today is that it's never quite as magical as when you first try it. When I strapped the original Oculus developer kit to my head at a friend's house earlier this year, I was instantly blown away by the roller coasters and starscapes that appeared before my eyes. That feeling was still lingering in March, when Oculus started taking pre-orders for its second-generation kit. I plunked down $350 for one on the first day of availability.
But since then, I've realized that Cardboard, despite its lack of sophistication, produces similar highs in a format that's lighter, cheaper, and wire-free. After I took Cardboard home from Google's I/O developer conference in June, it earned a place on our coffee table and became a conversation starter, which inevitably led to demonstrations. The demos—including a version of Google Earth that you can fly through by pointing your head around—are simple enough for anyone to use without needing any extra peripherals, and everyone comes away impressed.
While Oculus is technically superior, using it is an ordeal. Showing it off to friends and family meant bringing them into my office, sitting them down at my desk, wading through Windows Explorer to find the right files, dealing with potential display format issues, and babysitting their play sessions. When I've given demos, it's been practically out of obligation to justify this very expensive purchase.
Meanwhile, my personal use of Oculus Rift stagnated after the first couple of weeks. I could only ride so many virtual roller coasters and sit in so many virtual cockpits before feeling like the medium had reached a creative plateau. The ritual of trawling Reddit threads and random websites for new and interesting demos—once an exciting part of Rift ownership—became exhausting, and my developer kit started collecting dust.
This isn't meant to be a scathing review of the Oculus Rift, which isn't even a finished product. The point is that virtual reality as a whole is stuck at this level, where it can give amazing demos but hasn't yet transcended into something more substantial.
Cardboard is the perfect device for this phase that virtual reality is in, but the addition of an app store and developer toolkit do little to move VR forward. Many of the new Cardboard apps feel hastily thrown together, and don’t really build on Google’s own demos. You can spend a few minutes playing around with them, but trying to use Cardboard as anything but a toy brings back the same malaise I’ve been feeling with Oculus.
I don’t think virtual reality will be stuck in its "neat demo" rut forever, but it’s hard to see Cardboard having a big role in taking VR to the next level. Cardboard began as a "20 percent time" effort, created by several Google employees as a passion project, and while Google says Cardboard is now a full-time product, that basically amounts to hiring some new employees to work with the handful of existing ones. Much like Cardboard itself, Google's interest in virtual reality still seems like a diversion.
Oculus, meanwhile, has been snatching up top VR experts, and has acquired an accomplished product design team, along with startups specializing in augmented reality and skeletal hand-tracking. It’s also experimenting on two fronts with the main Rift developer kit and with Gear VR, a Cardboard-like wearable smartphone cradle from Samsung with Oculus-powered software. Under Facebook, the company is throwing massive resources at turning virtual reality into more than just a toy to show off to friends.
With Cardboard, Google seems content to float with the breeze, doing just enough to ensure that Google remains in the virtual reality conversation. This is serving the company well through virtual reality's infancy, though it won’t do much to help VR grow up.