Virtual reality is big news these days, but it’s not exactly cheap or easy to use. Facebook’s Oculus Rift costs $600 and HTC’s Vive is $800, and both require a powerful (and expensive) PC to use, as well as big, cumbersome cable tethers that limit the user’s range of motion. Plus, the software platforms are still fairly limited and complicated. All but the most eager early adopters are going to wait for something simpler and cheaper.
Samsung’s Gear VR, a $100 headset developed in partnership with Oculus, is untethered and brings prices closer to earth, but is still pricey for a new technology that lacks a robust software ecosystem, and it only works with Samsung’s more recent Galaxy smartphones.
High Tech, Low Cost
But fear not, cheapskates and Luddites: Google has brought VR to the masses! The search engine company has promulgated a virtual reality viewer format that can be had for as little as $7 and works with a wide variety of smartphones.
Project Cardboard was developed in 2014 by two Google engineers as part of their “20% Time” (free time the company gives employees for independent projects, a system that famously also resulted in the creation of Gmail and AdSense).
Now on its second iteration, the viewer is still little more than a few folded pieces of corrugated paper and two plastic lenses. More advanced units, with plastic housings, foam padding, and better optics, are also available, but the basic cardboard viewer still manages to delight and amaze with an incredibly immersive experience that belies its simplistic design. Google is also accelerating things by promoting VR-friendly 360-degree videos on YouTube.
Several brands were quick to see the potential for widespread adoption of low-cost VR:
The North Face
Outdoor outfitter The North Face entered the fray by partnering with Silicon Valley VR content company Jaunt to produce 360-degree video experiences, one at Yosemite National Park, and more recently, it released another experience recorded in the mountains of Nepal. Jaunt has also produced VR experiences for Paul McCartney, ABC News, and the Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander 2.
Way back in 2014 (practically ancient times by virtual reality standards) automaker Volvo broke ground with an early cardboard app to promote its XC90 SUV. It featured three videos that blended actual footage with computer-generated graphics to simulate the experience of driving the vehicle.
In a trial run, McDonald’s of Sweden offered 3500 lucky customers the opportunity to purchase a very special Happy Meal, in which even the box is part of the fun and can be folded into a VR viewer. The program was highly successful and may eventually lead to a global rollout.
It seems that just about anything made of cardboard can be engineered into a VR viewer. Earlier this year Coca-Cola released a series of limited-edition 12-packs that can be converted into a headset.
In 2015, The New York Times mailed out a staggering 1 million cardboard viewers to promote the launch of its inaugural VR app. Recently, the Gray Lady announced a further 300,000 units would be given to its longest-subscribing digital members. The app presents news stories via stereoscopic, 360-degree videos with binaural audio.
With smartphones already in most consumers’ pockets, and cardboard viewers so cheap and easy to distribute, it’s no wonder that Google reports that its VR apps have been downloaded over 25 million times (and that’s just on its own app store). That’s a large and growing number of eyeballs, and with over 1000 VR apps already available, the market is heating up fast. High-tech marketing has never been so accessible.