Innovation

How Google Cardboard became the flag bearer for VR, and what's next

No one knew quite what to do with Cardboard when Google handed it out in 2014. Little did we know it would become a leader in the emergence of VR-especially for businesses.

Image: Nate Ralph/CNET

The numbers about virtual reality these days raise eyebrows.

Goldman Sachs thinks VR will be more popular than television by 2025, raking in $110 billion, stacked against TV's $99 billion. The mysterious "cinematic reality" company Magic Leap nabbed $793.5 million in VC funding early February. In the past two years, venture capital firms have funneled $3.5 billion into AR and VR companies.

And then there are more positive numbers from Google about its little VR product that could, Google Cardboard.

Google vice president of virtual reality Clay Bavor published a blog post recently with stats on the progress of Google Cardboard. The post said that more than 5 million Cardboard units have been shipped, and that there have been more than 25 million installs of Google Cardboard apps from the Play store, with 10 million of those happening between October and December of 2015. Also, viewers have watched more than 350,000 hours of 360 video on YouTube.

Whenever numbers start hitting the millions, they sound great, but as Gartner analyst Brian Blau said, these are still early days—these numbers are a start, not a signal of arrival for the technology.

After all, roughly one million Cardboard units alone were shipped when The New York Times launched its NYT VR app in November 2015.

Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder said, "We don't know how many people are using those devices versus those that sit in a drawer or trash can."

Google doesn't have a perfect track record with hardware. Most notably, Google Glass, its augmented reality headmounted display, ended up being known for inciting privacy fears—and also, just looking dumb. That's partly why when Google gave attendees of its 2014 Google I/O event a folded up piece of Cardboard, the audience was a bit befuddled.

"Glass is sophisticated, it's for information workers, it's somewhat high-brow... [Then] here's this alternative, something completely on the opposite end, something so low-brow, you almost couldn't take it too seriously until you did," Blau said.

And that's been exactly the case for many people. When a product looks like something that could be built out of an old pizza box—which it can—expectations can't help but be exceeded.

SEE: VR and AR: The Business Reality (a ZDNet and TechRepublic special feature)

A year ago, Jason Latta, a VR developer at Louisville-based Amazing Robot and Sons consulting agency, spoke caution regarding Cardboard, wondering if Cardboard might sour the masses on VR. A lack of sensors could mean the tracking would drift and cause sickness. Plus, 360 video isn't true virtual reality.

"My concerns about Cardboard were it's a lower-quality experience that would confuse people's perception of virtual reality and make them think it was a fad and not really something that's going to become a new platform," he said.

One year later, Latta feels very differently. The improved SDK, the smoothness of the playback on Google native apps, the tracking, and especially the addition of the YouTube app into the mix has made him "pro-Cardboard."

"From a marketing standpoint, and trying to convince clients to consider doing virtual reality, it's so much easier now when you have the social media platforms YouTube and Facebook supporting 360 video. Even if someone doesn't have Cardboard, they can still use their cellphone to look around, move it around in the air like it's a little window into the virtual world," he said.

Though, Gownder said still holds some of the initial concern Latta had.

"Google Cardboard remains a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be a cheap way to gain entry into VR for people who aren't familiar with it. On the other hand, it doesn't create the sense of immersion offered by high end VR—lacking 3D audio, truly immersive visuals. As a result, while some people might get into VR due to their exposure to Cardboard, others might say 'what's the big deal?' and tune VR out," he said.

Either way, a major challenge Cardboard and others will face is integrating into daily life.

Right now, Cardboard is enjoying attention as a new, shiny way to add some panache to things like product demos. At CES 2016, it wasn't difficult to walk out with an arm full of Cardboards that were being given away by companies slapping their own branding on top of it. That was a clear sign that businesses are giving it a shot.

For example, TaylorMade, maker of golf clubs created a Google Cardboard experience. In order to promote PSi irons, the company had 1,500 branded Cardboard units made and sent to stores like Dick's Sporting Goods. Using the viewers, people could watch 360 videos featuring PGA Tour golfers Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose testing the irons.

Other uses have leaked into the news. Early this year, a doctor used Cardboard to look at a 3D rendering of a baby's heart and the immersiveness helped him figure out a plan of a attack for how to repair the damaged organ.

SEE: Virtual reality in 2016: The 10 biggest trends to watch

Where Cardboard fits in for Google

Blau also said that what Google's passively acknowledged, if not confirmed, is that there is a more formal effort underway for VR. Re/code reported at the end of January that Google moved 10 employees to a dedicated design team for VR. Plus, during Google's recent earnings call, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said that Cardboard was an initial step and that "Beyond these early efforts, you'll see a lot more from us and our partners in 2016."

Blau said, "They really want to be an ecosystem player and that's why I think they're going to go with VR and AR." Perhaps that means working on an operating system and a platform.

He thinks there are two big points here. One, Google prides itself on interfaces whether that be for operating systems or for apps. Two, Blau said, Google enables platforms to flourish.

"They want to enable businesses to use their technology... and to have those businesses rely on Google for their own products and services. I think in their eyes, VR and immersive are going to be yet another platform. I definitely think that they can see it because it's a change in user interface for computing," he said.

What's next for Cardboard

Cardboard might not be made out of cardboard for much longer. Last year's I/O saw Cardboard 2.0. The headset itself changed in that assembly was reduced to 3 steps. The real news was that Google announced not only the Google Jump camera array, but an improved SDK, as well as a platform to help developers stitch video (a task that is time-intensive), as well as the platform to actually watch and share 360 videos (YouTube).

However, on February 7, 2016, Financial Times reported that Google has plans to release a successor to Cardboard, something with sensors, a sturdier build, and new lenses. There will also be extra support for it built into the Android operating system.

This move would put it in competition with the $99 Samsung Gear VR, which also uses a mobile phone as a display and relies on Oculus sensors for tracking. And what's more, signal in a much bigger way that Cardboard isn't just a quirky side project, but a long term pursuit going forward.

Update: The Wall Street Journalreported on Feb. 11 that Google is working on a VR headset that does not need a game console, smartphone, or computer. This would be a separate headset than the plastic Cardboard. It would be powered by a VR version of Android. There's no word on a release date.

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Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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