#109: Trevor Claiborne on Google Cardboard’s journey from 20% side project to 500,000 units shipped

Trevor-ClaiborneTrevor Claiborne is a product manager for Google Cardboard, and he talks about the evolution of Cardboard from being a 20% side project to now shipping over 500,000 cardboard units. The Google Cardboard was a very secretive project within Google, and a lot of the people who were working on it in their spare time leading up to the initial announcement at Google I/O in 2014.

He talks about some of the design evolution of Cardboard including how the first discovered how they could use a magnet as a button using the phone’s magnetometer. There have also been some small tweaks and improvements to the the design over time.

He talks about the initial perception of Carboard being a joke, but once people get a chance to experience a Cardboard VR experience then they understand it a lot more. Trevor says that Google is serious about Virtual Reality, and it’s just that they’re going at it in a different way than other companies. They’re trying to produce VR experiences that more accessible to more people.

He talks about how Google Cardboard was deliberately designed to not include a headstrap because you hands limit your head motions in a way that helps to prevent nausea. The phone’s sensors are still limited, and they’re just trying to create an optimized VR experience given these constraints.

He talks about some of the future plans with regards to creating a Cardboard experience that fits a “phablet,” and some of the emerging interaction models. A couple of stand-out Google Cardboard experiences that he’s had include VR Cosmic Roller Coaster & Titan of Space for Cardboard.

Trevor says that there are no current plans at this point to add positional tracking, and so they’re using 3DOF head tracking. And he’s looking forward to when VR gets to the point of being able to transport us to another world that’s indistinguishable for reality, and that there are a lot of opportunities for fun and education in VR.

Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:12.035] Trevor Claiborne: My name is Trevor Claiborne. I'm a product marketing manager working on Google Cardboard and VR. The Cardboard story for me started around the end of April of last year, in 2014. I got an email saying, hey, come to my office. I'm like, OK. Hey, I'm going to show you something you can't talk about. I'm like, OK. And he shows me basically cardboard. I'm like, well, this is awesome. What are we doing with this? He's like, we're going to launch it at IO. I'm like, okay, what do you need? We need Bharat. Like, okay, I'm in. And that's basically how that conversation happened with every person from engineers to website help, writers. We just kind of put everyone together in their spare time. And then Sundar was on stage. He's like, everyone, you're going to get a cardboard. And he didn't tell anyone what it was or what it did. And we just started handing them out at I.O. And kind of the rest is not history, but it's been a wild ride since.

[00:01:02.406] Kent Bye: And so it seems like Cardboard is the essence of a minimal viable product in terms of the least amount of effort to get the most out of virtual reality. So maybe you could talk a bit about that history in terms of how that started, how it was developed before you got to that point.

[00:01:17.686] Trevor Claiborne: Sure. I mean, it was two guys in Paris, in the Paris office at the Cultural Institute, Damien Henry and David Cause. They were just frankly interested in building a VR headset out of cardboard and they started prototyping it in their spare time, in their 20% time. I've seen some of the early prototypes and they're not very good. They're all kludgy, but they started using lasers and things got better and they started showing it around and it was good. And it had enough potential that you could see like where this could go and There's still a lot of fine-tuning that had to happen to make the software. And up until a few days before I.O., we were like, is this demo good enough? No, cut this demo. This demo is no good. We were being really careful about what set of experiences are we going to give people, because it's a piece of cardboard. You're going to look at like, what's this thing going to do? And so to make sure people have that wow moment, you really have to focus on the details. So yes, it's a minimum viable product, but also you do have to kind of sweat the details to get something like cardboard to work well.

[00:02:13.313] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I think one of the interesting innovations that was on the Google Cardboard was the switch of using a magnet to be able to actually have a user interface with a smartphone. Maybe you could talk a bit about the evolution of that as an input.

[00:02:25.858] Trevor Claiborne: Yeah, that was a neat one. So that was already on the cardboard by the time I came around. But I think Boris came up with the idea. It was the common problem. My phone is inside the cardboard. How do I use it? And Boris keyed in, hey, the phone has a compass. The compass is powered by a magnetometer. If we just kind of move the magnet, that'll work. And I guess they just tested it by putting the magnet next to it and tried it. It worked pretty well. The rubber band on the cardboard is kind of the same way. It's like, hey, the phone keeps slipping out. What can we do? What if we put a rubber band here? And like, hey, that works. Like, just a little bit of friction. That was all it was. And like, there's all these little tweaks like that. And we did lots of little scrambles to kind of figure out these little problems. One of the fun stories that happened was the NFC tags on the original batch of cardboards were not encoded correctly. So we had 10,000 of these that were encoded incorrectly and not enough time to get new ones. So one engineer wrote an app that erased an NFC tag, and another one wrote an app that would recode the NFC tag and confirm that it was correctly done. So we had people walking in a circle around a conference room. One person would put down the NFC tag, another person would erase it, another person would scan it. We just walked around in circles for two hours. So we had I think about 10 people doing this at a time. And we re-encoded all the NFC tags in about three hours total. And it was just like these little things that were like, there is a problem. We have to find a way to fix it. We're launching at I-O. And it was just a scramble, but it all paid off.

[00:03:54.829] Kent Bye: I remember when it first came out, when Google Cardboard first came out. And I was almost like, I didn't know whether or not it was like an April Fool's joke, or are they just trying to troll the virtual reality community? Are they making fun of Oculus? And maybe you could talk about some of the perceptions that people had of Google Cardboard versus the reality of what it's been able to foster and enable.

[00:04:15.019] Trevor Claiborne: It definitely kind of looks like a joke when you're like, wait, Google Cardboard? Are you serious? We made some deliberate efforts to not call it Google Cardboard at I.O. We didn't want to add any more jokeness to it. But when people tried it, they were like, OK, you may be onto something here. And we've been trying to show that we're definitely serious about virtual reality. And we're doing it in a very different way than the other companies are. We're going out with something that is actually made of cardboard. But it's something, you know, it's less expensive. It's something that can be given away or sold at low cost. And so it's just a different approach. And, you know, we shipped over 500,000 cardboard out there, and we've got some great SDKs, and there's a bunch of great apps coming online. So I think the seriousness versus the joke part, you know, it's coming along. And folks still like, whoa, is this a joke? And then they give it a shot like, wow, this is really cool. And I think that's that moment where VR is accessible and easy to get to that, you know, helps us move past like, ah, this is just, you know, some crazy thing. It's a serious project, and we've got a lot of people working on it. It's a lot of fun.

[00:05:14.180] Kent Bye: Yeah, and talking to Brandon Jones, he gave a similar story in terms of being called into an office and being shown the, because he was already working in WebVR and virtual reality and the Chrome, and he hadn't even heard of it until at some point. And so maybe you could talk a bit about how you see the overlaps between Google Cardboard and WebVR and sort of those different initiatives.

[00:05:35.309] Trevor Claiborne: So my understanding is that we could use Google Cardboard to feature WebVR pretty easily. There are separate efforts, but in terms of what we're doing with Google Cardboard, we're working on SDKs for Android and Unity, maybe other platforms in the future. And then when WebVR is ready to be used, we hope that people use Cardboard to view it, or any other headset. We're big fans of virtual reality across the board, and we want people to try all sorts of experiences.

[00:05:58.767] Kent Bye: Yeah, and it seems like there's an ecosystem of a little bit more sophisticated virtual reality HMDs in terms of having a strap and being able to not have to hold it up to your face. And so maybe you could talk about some of those other headsets that are out there, and are there future plans to improve the Google Cardboard so that you don't have to use your hands to hold it up to your face?

[00:06:19.043] Trevor Claiborne: So for cardboard, we made a deliberate choice to not include a head strap. And the reasoning is, when you've got the head strap on your head, you can do these crazy whipping motions through your head that are not going to make you feel very good. And when you hold the cardboard in your hand and you turn, you sort of are limited in what you can do. And I think that provides a better experience overall. So the other HMDs that are including straps, they're not going to necessarily make you sick, but they're still at risk. And so for Carver, we're just going to stick to what we know is going to make people feel good and have this good experience of virtual reality. In a lot of cases, we're people's first experience of virtual reality. And so we want to make sure that's a really nice experience. We don't want people to try VR and like, oh, I felt ill, and then look away from the medium entirely. In terms of improving Cardboard, we're making little bits and changes here. I think the biggest thing we need to do is make something that fits a phablet. Phablets are a big deal. The manufacturers that produce Cardboard using our spec have made some phablet-sized Cardboard. But it's something I think we'd like to do it as well.

[00:07:18.776] Kent Bye: Yeah, and it seems like even the latest Nexus 6 phone is too big for the Google Cardboard. So are there plans to make a larger form factor? And does that require more sophisticated lenses? Or what's the plans on that?

[00:07:31.774] Trevor Claiborne: No particular plans yet, but I hear you. I have a Nexus 6 myself, and I would love to use it with Cardboard. I'm actually using a third-party viewer right now for my cardboard needs on my Nexus 6, and it works well. In terms of things like lenses, we've made slight adjustments over time. We haven't announced anything like that, just little tweaks as we get better at manufacturing. One little thing we've done is the magnet on the side, we've actually enclosed it a bit, so it used to come off on things, like it would stick to your lanyard or your desk, and you'd lose the magnet, and now we've enclosed it, so it's harder to lose. So we're doing little tweaks like that, but nothing major yet.

[00:08:06.739] Kent Bye: And it seems like even with a very limited interaction of just kind of looking around and having one button, maybe you could talk about some of the experiences that you've seen come out with Google Cardboard that you are really compelling.

[00:08:18.711] Trevor Claiborne: Yeah, so the experiences with just, you know, the Switch and basically, I guess, Gaze or Focus, Hover, a lot of people call it different things. The interaction models are still emerging for, you know, how do you work with VR. Some of the great apps we've seen recently, one that we just put in the Play Store collection is called VR Cosmic Coaster. It's kind of your typical roller coaster, but it's just done this beautiful environment. It's using our Unity SDK, and it's just this gorgeous view through space. Another one that just came out on Cardboard is Titans of Space, which was available on Gear VR before, and I think Oculus as well. And it works great in Cardboard, and you've got that beautiful music, and they've actually offered two different modes of use. You can either, if your headset has a magnetic switch that works with your phone, you can use the click-based navigation. But if you don't, then you can use focus-based navigation. And so I think either understanding what the capabilities of someone's viewer are, or giving the user an option to follow along with what their capabilities are, is going to be the best bet. Because VR viewers are going to vary. Phones are going to vary. And so just making sure people can have a good experience, I think, is the key. And both those apps deliver pretty well on that.

[00:09:27.888] Kent Bye: Is there going to be the ability to do positional tracking? Because right now you're just able to look left and right, but not necessarily be able to lean forward. And I'd imagine that within the sensors within the phone, it may be able to actually start to sense some of that. So are there plans to start to make it a little bit more so that you can actually have more and better positional tracking?

[00:09:46.662] Trevor Claiborne: So yeah, Cardboard is currently 3DOF. You can just look around. You can't walk around. It's something that I think is pretty important for a full VR experience. All the 6DOF stuff I've used is really awesome and fun, but it's not something that we're currently planning on. It might be something that we do in the future, but not something we're currently tracking on.

[00:10:04.786] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as the ultimate potential for where you want to see virtual reality go and what it might be able to enable?

[00:10:12.245] Trevor Claiborne: I'd love to eventually have VR come to the point where you actually feel like you're there completely. That's a long-term goal, obviously, but that feeling that you're like, wow, I am in this other place experiencing this other thing that I couldn't otherwise do, such that you don't even realize that you were in the VR anymore. the lofty, probably 10-year goal. Short-term, just the ability for people to try an amazing experience, do something they've never done easily, with no friction, and be able to share it with friends, and enjoy it all together. I think VR presents huge opportunities for fun and education, and just finding ways to help people do that, a lot of people do that, I think will be the best. Great. Well, thank you. It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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