No. Just, no. We do not need a series of “Google Cardboard meets HoloLens” devices to help usher us into the age of augmented reality.
But yes, that’s exactly what at least two companies are trying to do: Sell you cardboard devices that use your smartphone to create a kind of low budget HoloLens for a fraction of the price.
In just the last couple of weeks I’ve seen the emergence of cardboard-framed AR devices for smartphones from Aryzon (about $32) and Holokit. Both are promoted as cheap alternatives to pricier, higher end AR (or “mixed reality”) devices and both have videos showing off how they work. Neither is immediately available to the public yet, but I can see where this is all going.
Anyone in our office looking for the history of Google Cardboard devices need only swing by my desk to see the sprawling graveyard of cardboard boxes designed to turn your smartphone into a cheap, mobile VR headset. And while the flurry of excitement over cheap VR via Cardboard simmered for a couple of years, interest has largely died out.
If you’re really interested in VR, you can either pick up a fairly cheap Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream View headset and the compatible smartphones that go with them. Similarly, those looking for the best VR have high-end options in the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive.
Yes, cheap, cardboard AR devices are a brilliant idea on paper. And if a friend had come up with it over drinks and showed me a proof of concept I would’ve probably raved about it. But then I would’ve woken up the next morning, slammed a searing hot mug of coffee down my throat and then come to my senses, sending him a text saying, “Don’t do it.”
Sure, AR is part of our virtual future alongside VR, and will likely have greater reach due to its integration with the real world versus the relative isolation inherent to VR. And when the hardware that moves us from experiencing AR on our smartphone screens arrives, perhaps in the form of fashionable glasses and not unwieldy, incredibly expensive headsets like the HoloLens, that will indeed be a glorious day. But attempting to give us a middle ground in the form of a cardboard device isn’t the answer.
We know this because we’ve been here before.
The problem is, while VR via Cardboard devices introduced large numbers of people to the “idea” of VR, ultimately, the low quality experiences led many to assume that they’d sampled the “state of the art” in VR—and so they moved on and didn’t even consider the higher end, far more immersive and interactive options.
Rather than serve as the perfect gateway drug, VR on Cardboard actually polluted the virtual waters, leading many to dismiss the technology as a gimmick.
Things will get better for VR, but in the short term, Cardboard did more harm than good.
That is not the fate we want for AR.
Sure, AR apps dealing with commerce, mapping, and gaming will almost certainly drive wide adoption of AR on smartphones and tablets in the near term, regardless of how they’re delivered early on. But tech “culture” can sometimes be just as important as the tech itself, and if something is framed as a gimmick, or a fad, meaningful platform development can suffer. The Google Glass “glasshole” debacle taught us that lesson as well.
But the biggest indictment against “Cardboard meets HoloLens” devices is obvious: You don’t need them. Whereas the pretense with VR via Google Cardboard was that the cardboard box could close off your viewpoint to mimic an immersive headset, with cardboard-framed AR, you don’t need a “headset” or “cradle” since you’re already using your smartphone to look at AR objects anyway. Using low cost mirrors and lenses, these new cardboard devices do appear to add an additional sense of depth to the AR objects (based solely on the demo videos) while you press the box to your face, but these passive viewing devices are of limited use to all but the mildly AR curious.
This is a clever solution without a problem.
And just because it’s clever and possible doesn’t always mean you should do it.
Now if they can recraft these cardboard clever contraptions into a sleek, hands-free wearable glasses sooner than the likes of Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft, I’ll be first in line to buy a pair.
But until we get real AR glasses, or even cheaper, lightweight HoloLens or Meta 2 devices, AR via smartphone, sans cardboard, works just fine, thanks.