Google Cardboard’s New York Times Experiment Just Hooked a Generation on VR
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.”
Whatever the reason for my myopia, it was awfully convenient that, just a few days after I started idly searching Cardboard options on Amazon, one showed up in my driveway. I suspect that, like many of those other 1.3 million, the first thing I did was to put it on my kid. And I’m pretty sure that means everything.
New Is Normal
If you’re my age, the first thing I bet you thought when you heard VR was making a comeback was, “Wait, didn’t they try that in the ’90s?” Then you experience today’s version, and you discover that VR’s current incarnation is not what you experienced at that cyber café back when we were still calling things “cyber.”
If you’re a kid, on the other hand, there’s a good chance you’ve grown up assuming that portable touchscreen portals to a significant portion of human knowledge, entertainment, and communication are a given. Yes, you think your dad’s iPhone is pretty cool. But then yesterday you put on Google Cardboard and watched a train come hurtling toward you before you flew up into the sky and into the embrace of a giant baby. And you said, “Yeah, now we’re talking.”
I don’t know what the exact year is, but I believe that up to a certain age, any technology a kid encounters registers as “normal.” To me, a world without color TV or personal computers is an abstraction. For a host of kids as of yesterday, so is a world without VR.
This is why distributing something as unpolished as Google Cardboard in a way that’s as gimmicky (and anachronistic) as handing it out with a newspaper turns out to be such a big deal. Sure, we’re talking about a tiny subset of kids. But they’ll tell their friends. Their parents are already telling their friends. And a technology that once seemed remote is suddenly accessible.
And in the case of this particular technology, accessibility translates almost immediately into visceral intimacy. Experiencing VR for the first time isn’t just cool; it’s revelatory. This is why so many of us made sure to capture the moment of our kids’ first encounter. Most parents, I hope, don’t make videos of their kids’ reactions when we unbox our latest iPhones. But I believe we had a collective sense that our kids were experiencing something meaningfully new—not just an encounter with a new technology, but with a new way of relating to technology.
Especially as a medium for non-fiction, I believe the hype that VR can act as a powerful empathy engine, a uniquely direct way to put us in someone else’s world. This makes me hopeful that VR will become much more than the next level of escapism for an already screen-addled generation. I know that’s some serious parental wishful thinking. But for good or ill, Google Cardboard is just good enough to imprint a new paradigm on a nation of 8-year-olds. From now on, kids who’ve had the VR experience have a new set of expectations of what it should mean to interact with a computer. Imagine what they’ll expect by the time they’re 18.
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