Google Cardboard’s New York Times Experiment Just Hooked a Generation on VR
By Marcus Wohlsen
Yesterday my Facebook feed filled up with pictures of friends’ kids clutching cardboard boxes to their faces. Well, I should say, Cardboard boxes.
That’s because subscribers to The New York Times’ Sunday print edition received a Google Cardboard virtual reality headset, wrapped in the standard-issue blue plastic bag, as part of the Times’ rollout of its own VR content.
Cardboard isn’t much to look at. It’s a bit of corrugated, yes, cardboard and some velcro that you fold to create a slot for your smartphone and a pair of flaps to block your peripheral vision. Inside is the crucial component, the pair of cheap plastic lenses that that transform the flat, doubled-up images on your phone’s screen into the illusion of an immersive 3-D environment.
But Cardboard’s crudeness is also its genius. It’s cheap enough to be handed out for free; we smartphone users supply the only part that’s expensive. The Times and Google could afford to drop about 1.3 million of them in the newspaper. That’s 1.3 million people who said to themselves yesterday, “Wait, you mean this VR thing is something I can have right here, right now, too?”
Okay, I’m sure that among Times subscribers, several were savvy enough to already have some kind of VR rig on hand and have been probing the virtual depths for a while now. But embarrassing confession time: I’m an editor at WIRED—you know, where we cover the future—and it just hadn’t sunk in that VR was something I could do, too. Yes, a bit of that was brand blindness; Samsung has been pushing its own Gear headset for a while, but no highly visible headset targeting iOS users has emerged yet. In fact, when I asked our Gear team what I could use to watch VR on an iPhone, the response was, “It’s basically just Cardboard.”