Yesterday at the Google I/O conference, Google brought the app store for Cardboard–the sub $5 cardboard adapter that turns a smartphone into a virtual reality headset–to the iPhone. In the process, Google beat Apple to the punch in offering a VR platform on the iPhone.
On the surface, that might not sound like a big deal. Isn’t Cardboard just a cheap tech demo anyway? That’s a fair argument–maybe the right one, even. A year since launch, in spite of selling 500,000 headsets, Cardboard hasn’t produced any must-play experiences. For now, it’s more or less a low-commitment way to try out virtual reality, without the financial or technical barriers that come with buying an Oculus Rift and $1000 gaming PC.
That said, don’t think of Cardboard as a hardware play. Think of it as a software play. Google is doing more than just fitting a chunk of paper to the iPhone. Yes, today, the Cardboard app mostly just allows you to virtually explore cities and museum artifacts with your iPhone. But what will the cardboard app have inside it tomorrow if creators take advantage of Jump? Movies? Games? The ability to explore damn near any place in the world?
With Cardboard, Google is going back to its roots. Screw high design. Make it cheap for consumers. Make it accessible to developers. Make a minimal viable product, hook us on it, and keep improving that thing to keep us coming back. (See: Search, Gmail, Google Docs, Android, and every other Google service that now rules your life.) Experiment publicly and let the chips fall where they may.
Of course, this leaves plenty of room for error. But building out this Cardboard ecosystem is something Google is taking very seriously. Consider the following: Google’s former head of search design recently became the lead designer of cardboard; the company recently hired Justin Lin, director of four The Fast & The Furious films, to shoot a live action short in virtual reality; it announced a program called Jump, that will make producing VR content easier, and they partnered with GoPro to announce a 360-degree video rig that can make the process of filming any movie into filming a virtual reality movie.
And in the future, Google has even admitted that “Cardboard” might not always be made of actual cardboard, hinting that the search giant has thought of a life for Cardboard that goes beyond a lab experiment.
This doesn’t automatically mean that Google is going to conquer VR on the iPhone–Google could also just pull a Google and shut the whole program down overnight. But it does give it a head start in building up momentum and sneaking away with the iPhone’s VR market. If Apple wants in, it now has to to grab this turf back. But Apple probably won’t any time soon. Why? It only goes after real estate when it’s already proven to be worth something. And virtual reality is an area that’s so nascent that it’s hard to imagine Apple touching it, let alone with a $5 chunk of paper that fits on your face. (Case in point: Apple had a Google Glass alternative years before Glass, but they didn’t launch it because they couldn’t prove a real value in the tech.)
Which begs the question: Is Cardboard the next Kindle app, a trojan horse that will take over iOS from the inside and steal big bucks from Apple? Or is Cardboard, and cheapskate VR, so ahead of commercial viability and human usability, that Google’s strategy won’t matter in the long run? The latter is most likely the case. But Google has made a smart play to have any shot at the former.