Virtual reality, as we’ve explained, is about using technology to make you feel as though you’re somewhere else. Most of the first consumer VR headsets will be expensive, though, and some will be really expensive, at least for now.
But from a certain point of view, there are several VR headsets already on the market, and they’re dirt cheap. These are Google Cardboard headsets, and although some virtual reality enthusiasts don’t take them seriously, they’re becoming increasingly important to the nascent VR market.
Case in point: The New York Times is going to distribute more than one million Cardboards to its Sunday print subscribers the weekend of Nov. 7-8. Because if anyone loves new technology, it’s newspaper readers, right?
The Times is giving out the headsets to promote the Nov. 5 launch of a smartphone app called NYT VR, which will feature editorial content produced with Vrse, as well as sponsored content from GE and Mini. Executive Editor Dean Baquet described the app as a symbol of the Times’ commitment to doing serious journalism in new mediums.
Using Cardboard as a promotional tool is nothing new. But the big-media endorsement is a good occasion to take a step back and ask: What the hell are these things, and why are we putting them on our heads?
The Google Cardboard ecosystem is pretty confusing. Google doesn’t actually make most of the devices that bear its name. Instead, it puts its official stamp on low-cost devices made by companies such as Zeiss, Mattel and Dodocase.
These devices have some differentiating features, largely aesthetic ones. But at their core, they all do the same thing: They hold smartphones in place in front of two lenses; then, when the user holds the device up to her or his face and looks through those lenses at a special type of smartphone app, they’ll see a virtual reality image.
A common refrain in VR circles is that this is a cut below the “real” headsets coming from companies like Oculus, HTC and Sony.
“It’s a disservice to call these the same things, Oculus and Cardboard,” Andreessen Horowitz partner Chris Dixon said in a recent interview with Re/code. “I almost wish we had different words for them. Low-end virtual reality, it’s more like 3-D panoramic video. I don’t think it’s really VR.”
What Dixon means by “3-D panoramic video” is that many Cardboard headsets don’t offer any way to interact with the VR apps you can see on the screen. Hence, apps like YouTube and Vrideo that deliver panoramic 360-degree videos are currently seen as the primary form of content for Cardboard, leaving gaming to more expensive upcoming devices like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR.
Not everyone wants to play video games, though. For some, content like the New York Times’ 360-degree news videos will be more than adequate.
And Google knows that, too, which is why one of its next big VR initiatives is getting a $15,000 camera for making VR content into the hands of YouTubers, brands and other video pros.
Partners like the Times are helping Google’s low-cost VR ecosystem (fragmented though it may be) reach for the big prize: Being the leading platform for virtual reality smartphone software, just as its Android operating system is currently the dominant mobile OS worldwide by market share. It’s not there yet, but if VR is going to become a real business in the coming years, holding that lead will be valuable.
And so far, it’s working. Cardboard devices are becoming “my first VR headset,” because they’re cheap enough to produce that a company like the Times can blast them to hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting subscribers as a promotion. Several major carmakers such as Volvo are also using Cardboard as a marketing tool, while Mattel has revived the View-Master brand as an introductory VR device for kids.
Here’s the next question, then, that might soon keep the Oculuses of the world up at night: Is Cardboard merely an introduction to VR? Or with its early market-share and mindshare advantage, will it become something more?
Re/code presents: Virtual reality for a more mature audience
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This article originally appeared on Recode.net.