Recycling the Google Cardboard

Mike Wiebe, Erik Horn, Kurt Pfeifer and Todd Little

March 8, 2021

The first iteration of consumer friendly VR has officially gone the way of the Dodo and the Zune. Google has removed all listings for Google Cardboard VR headsets from the Google Store. With VR making big leaps and bounds elsewhere, it wasn't getting much attention, but it still existed up until last month when Google officially ended all support for hardware and software of its Daydream and Cardboard VR platforms. Technology advancing and the phasing out of old tech is a natural thing, but normally the online eulogies are less divisive. The sentiments range between Google Cardboard being the attempted assassin of VR to Google Cardboard being a kindly Mother Goose who sweetly encouraged people to dream of virtual fairy tales. The loved or loathed devise was the entry point to VR for many people. Using a simple folded cardboard headset with lenses and a smartphone, it was dirt cheap and extremely accessible. The quality was low and the experiences ended with a feeling of either "wow, VR is kind of lame" or "wow, this is obviously the beginning of what VR can do. " Neither opinion is wrong and both are valid. Either way it's important to always try and get people excited about VR and the way it's presented. Cardboard wasn't exactly exciting people about new technology. It's hard to sell the possibilities of game changing technology when your first encounter was free with a candy bar or Sunday paper.

Stock photos for some other fails that didn't help advance the public idea of what VR is. Don't do this. This is not safe

Some of the team here at Fair Worlds took a look back to give some final words about the cardboard we are about to recycle

Erik Horn:

I directed a 360 video for the New York Times right when the Google Cardboard was getting a lot of attention.

The promise of mailing out a DIY VR headset to millions of New York Times subscribers seemed like a great idea on (news) paper, but in practice it ended up being a quite different story. The Google Cardboard was rife with issues, from frustrating users with the ‘crafting’ required to unfold and assemble the headset, to users phones being at all stages of depleted battery life and upkeep, to smudgy screens and blurry cheap lenses, I can't really recall a single person that I spoke to who had an A+ experience using one. Beyond the physical limitations of the “headset,” what really turned me off on the platform was when I proudly showed my mother the finished New York Times 360 video. It took multiple tries for us to get her going into the Google cardboard and getting the 360 video playing correctly. I was unable to see what she saw, so troubleshooting was the often repeated phrase “what are you seeing?” The lenses were obviously not high quality, so she constantly complained that it was out of focus. The most concerning thing was that when it did it work, and she started to follow the story, she pretty much was immediately in physical pain... a lot of the action was behind her, and since she was sitting on my couch, it was difficult and uncomfortable for her to crane her neck around to view things behind her. A lot of early 360 video content fell into this trap. Most content creators worked while sitting in a swivel computer chair, but the audience was primarily sitting at home on their couches. It would be the last 360 video I would professionally direct. We were excited to find the newer format VR180 (another Google innovation, and also R.I.P.) and were lucky enough to create some really interesting pieces for Environmental Defense Fund on the now-defunct format platform. Google Cardboard introduced the concept of virtual reality to a very large audience, and had the best intentions at heart. But at the end of the day I think it created so many false impressions of what VR could be that we're still fighting it today. I found when I've shown people six degree of freedom content on a headset like the Oculus Quest, they immediately will comment on how different it was compared to the Google cardboard content they saw years ago.

Rest in peace Google cardboard... and also good riddance? 

Kurt Pfeifer:

Google Cardboard is dead, long live Google Cardboard!  I remember being astounded at how clever and apparently philanthropic the concept of Google Cardboard was when it came out.

For the price of a couple of cheap lenses and a sheet of cardboard that's folded in the right way you could have low budget 3-degrees-of-freedom headset.  Sure it wouldn't know where you were standing or register if your body moved around, but you could rotate your head and view a VR scene in 360 degrees.  Think of the people you could reach who would never throw down big cash on an Oculus Rift or Vive!  My mom could have a VR headset! Well the big popularization of Cardboard may never have reached those heights, which maybe is why Google is pulling the official plug on the thing.  Cardboard headsets it turns out feel flimsy and having to slide your phone in and out of the thing inherently gives it a shelf life of about a couple dozen uses before it starts to sag or tear.  ViewMaster made a cute plastic version shaped like their famous headsets from our youth, and that held together better physically than its paper counterpart but a key problem still remained: VR isn't really terribly involving if you don't register your body movements.  It feels weird to duck or move but have the entire image remain unchanged so that it looks like you never moved at all.  It feels a little disconcerting and your caveman brain kind of rejects it out of the gate.  Google Cardboard best serves as an introduction to what could be if you dive deeper into VR, and if nothing else you can watch 180- or 360-degree monoscopic or stereoscopic YouTube videos (as long as Google keeps supporting the format).As a life lesson, it gives me pause before I think about sinking more of my spare development time and/or money into future Google tech roadmaps.  Between Cardboard and Stadia it's become clear the patience for projects without clear and giant revenue streams is shrinking in Mountain View.  It lives on however as an open source project; the whole concept is dead-simple so it's not like it truly disappeared the day Google pulled the plug.  If you've never given it a try it's fun to put one together, a crafty project that lets you share a less imposing amuse-bouche of VR tech to someone who never had the desire to put on one of those big honkin' headsets.

Todd Little:

There’s folks in the XR industry who say that the Google Cardboard did a disservice to the industry by “tainting” the consumer market with an inferior product. They argue that it soured consumers on the potential of VR. There’s some truth to that: low FPS that could make it nauseating and 3DoF (degrees of freedom).

On a personal note, it was the first HMD device that I developed for and through its limitations / constraints pulled focus to interaction paradigms I should avoid. I was working on a Capstone project on foreign language learning, conVRse, and the basic mechanics is that you were learning Spanish vocabulary through cooking. You would get an auditory prompt and you would need to know the nouns and verbs to succeed. You would “grab” a noun object and move it to a “verb” station. The way to grab an object was to look at the object and tap the side button and as you held the object, you would rotate your head and then release. It became very clear that was going to hurt our necks… a lot. We switched over to using the HTC Vive, but that early prototyping taught us all important lessons on interface design for VR, so I’m grateful to the Google Cardboard for that.

But what is next? What Google Cardboard accomplished was to introduce VR to a wide audience without them needing new expensive hardware to try it. Here are a few of our favorite options for delivering immersive content to a large audience without a huge technology investment.

Sketchfab: We cant say enough good things about Sketchfab, and not just because we're on their official partner program. Think of it as the Vimeo for 3D assets and animation. It seamlessly "unlocks" 3D and puts it in an extremely responsive and enjoyable format, especially on mobile. We really utilize it with our client National Pool and Tile. They host 3D "Dream Pools" on the product page that allows users to view them in AR without needing to download our NPT Backyard app.

The Oculus Quest 2: While 300 dollars is a whole lot different than basically free - the Quest 2 is still, in our opinion, best VR headset for an entry level consumer. And it has a quality that the Google Cardboard did not, it impresses on first impression. We've heard countless stories of people trying the Quest at a friends house and then buying one on their phone on the spot (if they could find them in stock). This is still the headset to beat and what most of us use on a daily basis.

Lume Pad: This is a technology we've been excited about for some time and is becoming more and more pervasive. They also JUST became a Unity Verified Solutions partner so creating content for the "3D without the glasses" screen has become more streamlined.