#449: A History of the Google Cardboard Ecosystem with DODOcase

craig-daltonThe story of how DODOcase started the Google Cardboard VR ecosystem within 24 hours, and became responsible for producing 20% of all of the Cardboard headsets is really quite an incredible story. I had a chance to catch up with CEO and founder Craig Dalton at GDC where he gives quite a history of Cardboard and some of the first major advertising campaigns to use it.


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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So on today's episode, I have the story of Craig Dalton of DodoCase. And so this is a pretty amazing story, because essentially what happened is that back at the Google I.O. conference in 2014, Google revealed the Google Cardboard idea for the first time, which was essentially a 20% project that was a minimal viable product to be able to create a VR experience with a HMD headset that was made out of cardboard. And so Craig had been manufacturing a number of different iPhone cases and he heard the news and very immediately went down, started talking to some of the Google I.O. people, and started to put in their production pipeline to create commercially available Google Cardboard headsets. So within a matter of less than 24 hours, the ecosystem for Cardboard had already started to develop, which I think is a pretty good indicator for the idea of what Google is trying to inspire within this open ecosystem. So, on today's episode, I talked to Craig about this process of getting into cardboard production where they had, at the time of this interview, produced about 20% of all the different cardboard headsets that were out there in a collaboration with working with a number of different advertisers and different companies to do branded cardboard headsets. I kind of get to take a step back before the Google Daydream launches here on October 4th and take a look back at the legacy of the Google Cardboard and what it was able to do to really foster the virtual reality ecosystem and very likely still be the cheapest way for a lot of people to have some of their first virtual reality experiences. So that's what we'll be talking about on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. This is a paid sponsored ad by the Intel Core i7 processor. If you're going to be playing the best VR experiences, then you're going to need a high-end PC. So Intel asked me to talk about my process for why I decided to go with the Intel Core i7 processor. I figured that the computational resources needed for VR are only going to get bigger. I researched online, compared CPU benchmark scores, and read reviews over at Amazon and Newegg. What I found is that the i7 is the best of what's out there today. So future-proof your VR PC and go with the Intel Core i7 processor. So this interview with Craig happened at GDC on March 14th to 18th in San Francisco. And this was actually one of the first public events at UploadVR's Upload Collective. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:52.723] Craig Dalton: My name's Craig Dalton. I'm CEO and co-founder of DodoCase. And we've been working in VR for a couple of years. We were Google's first partner in the Works with Cardboard program. So if you recall, when they launched at Google I.O. in 2014, DodoCase actually launched a product that evening, within four hours of the launch, with no knowledge before that VR was going to be a thing. We just saw it, and we put that cardboard box on our head, and our minds were blown. And we were like, people are going to want this. the engineers in this room. I've never seen a product that made people smile so consistently. So we really doubled down on it and Google recognized it the next day and put us in their keynote address and that set us on as being sort of one of the bigger partners in the Works with Cardboard program.

[00:03:38.468] Kent Bye: Wait, so take a step back there. So you heard about the Google Cardboard, and four hours later you created a prototype, and the next day you're in the keynote?

[00:03:47.079] Craig Dalton: So if you recall, they open sourced the design. And our concept was people are going to be inherently lazy and aren't going to want to cut out their box, acquire some lenses, get some Velcro, et cetera. So why don't we offer a product page, and we'll make it for them? So we didn't actually make one until the second day, but we put up a product page the first day. Because we had a manufacturing background and a big facility here in San Francisco, we knew we could make anything. It was just going to take a matter of time. So we went to the Google team that night and actually went out to all the bloggers that were covering it and said, hey, we're doing this. And the Google team said, we thought an ecosystem would arise from this, but we had no idea how fast. And if you recall, it was a 20% project, and it really wasn't supposed to be the runaway success of I.O. in 2014. But it was all anybody could talk about. And so they did a second session the next day, and they put us in the PowerPoint presentation, jokingly saying, like, the ecosystem arrived a hell of a lot faster than we thought it would.

[00:04:47.704] Kent Bye: Wow. So were you at Google I.O. then?

[00:04:49.660] Craig Dalton: We weren't, we actually covering it remotely. So we, my business partner, Patrick Buckley went down that night, got in on a borrowed pass and talk to the team.

[00:04:59.423] Kent Bye: That is a pretty crazy story that Dodo case was there really at ground zero of the Google Cardboard of just a few hours after launching. So what were you thinking that, you know, you were just going to market and sell these and what were you expecting at that point?

[00:05:13.460] Craig Dalton: Yeah, obviously we didn't have anything invested in it, so we really just wanted to see what would happen and we were really shocked. We sold 15,000 units within six weeks. So it was pretty shocking to be able to do that over the internet for a product that hadn't seen the light of day until that first announcement at I.O. What we realized was that it was going to be as cool as it was, it was going to be really difficult for Little Dodo Case to make a market. We're not a market-making company because of our size. So we took a step back and we said, well, who's really going to benefit beyond these first 15,000 people who bought these like that? who's going to benefit from delivering VR experiences to the world. And what we did, we had a quite an experienced team doing customization work for clients. So we started to see the first brands and advertisers start to come to VR and want to do custom branded Google Cardboard headsets. And we started to distinguish ourselves as a company that could do high quality execution, deliver on time and on budget. And Google became a big feeder partner to us, delivering brands that needed to do work that Google wasn't able to do themselves.

[00:06:27.858] Kent Bye: So what were some of the first branded Google Cardboard unit that you did then?

[00:06:31.932] Craig Dalton: So the first units we did were actually Christmas cards for ad agencies back in 2014. So OMD and Havas did it as part of their Christmas cards. But quickly on the heels of that, we did a project for 7 For All Mankind Denim and Elle Magazine with content produced by Jaunt. And that was sort of the biggest brand collective that we had worked with up until that point. At this point, fast forward to 2016, we've done over 500 branded campaigns to the tune of over 500,000 viewers out there in the world. So projects like, we worked with Conan O'Brien at Comic-Con. We worked with the North Face and Outside Magazine and we shipped 75,000 units within the pages of Outside Magazine. Worked with countless car automotive brands like Porsche, Ford, and Mercedes, and Lexus doing activations, which has been really cool because we really feel like from a content creation point of view, we've been networked very well with a lot of those creators and started to understand their needs. And as you know, the VR community is very supportive of one another. So we've continually just together helped build this market, kind of one viewer and one new customer at a time.

[00:07:49.435] Kent Bye: So when Google Cardboard announced just a month or so ago that they've shipped 5 million Cardboard units, so you've accounted for about 500,000 of those? Correct.

[00:07:59.880] Craig Dalton: Yeah, actually a little bit more when you count our direct consumer number. If you subtract out what Google has done themselves with deals like the New York Times, we're probably about 20% of the market.

[00:08:10.829] Kent Bye: I see. And so, for you, what were some of the biggest turning points in terms of the evolution from when it first launched in 2014 until now, for you as a company, where you feel like it kind of hit an inflection point?

[00:08:22.275] Craig Dalton: Definitely throughout 2015, we kept seeing bigger and bigger deals happen and the average deal size grow and grow and grow. And we started to see a lot of the really obvious verticals start to explore smartphone VR. And I think that's going to be critical to the industry's growth. It's going to happen on the smartphone side, niche by niche by niche. So you're going to have adventurers seek out that North Face content and travel content from guys like Nat Geo and Discovery Channel. Then you've got a lot of content being produced on the music side of the world and a lot of really powerful stuff happening in education that we're really excited about. So I'm starting to see all of those industries that I see as low-hanging fruit. to elevate and begin to do bigger and bigger projects, which has been really exciting.

[00:09:13.540] Kent Bye: So because you've been a part of a lot of these different campaigns, I'm sure that some of these ad agencies or companies may be coming to you looking for some sort of advice as to perhaps what kind of content would be working particularly well. And I'm curious, from your perspective in seeing all these campaigns, where is the sweet spot of a Google Cardboard campaign like this?

[00:09:32.924] Craig Dalton: Yeah, I mean, clearly today it's 360 video. And going beyond that for our brand probably isn't worth the investment. I'll probably turn off a lot of your listeners saying that. But really, our focal point on the market is very much snackable content. So one to three minutes, five minute tops, 360 video. Obviously, if they can add a stereoscopic VR element, it's even cooler. But what we're seeing most people focus on is either that or some basic sort of CG experiences that take a 360 image or film clip to the next level.

[00:10:11.163] Kent Bye: So when a campaign like this is put together and then put out into the world, they usually try to measure it with some sort of metrics to see whether or not it's successful or not. What are some of the metrics for success for an ad campaign for Google Cardboard?

[00:10:25.094] Craig Dalton: So obviously they understand going in how many viewers they've financed. So whether it's 10,000 or 100,000, that's a finite number that they're bringing out into the world. So that's not really an important number other than, you know, that's the baseline. What they're really looking at is views, downloads, and if they can glean it, like how many times people are actually playing the content. And I think some interesting things are coming out of that. One, I think more and more you're seeing a delta between the number of viewers that are given out and the number of downloads of the application, which is great because it's showing that people are finding the content, downloading it, and potentially having their own viewers. But engagement is also something that's huge in the VR campaigns. And I know there's a lot of tools that are being created right now to kind of track your gazing and how long you're staying in an individual frame of a piece of content. That stuff's going to be coming of more and more importance. But right now it's simply like app downloads and time and experience that they're looking for to kind of calculate their ROI.

[00:11:30.388] Kent Bye: And so just recently you had an Indiegogo campaign for the Smart TV Cardboard Certified Viewer. So maybe you could talk a bit about that and where that's going.

[00:11:38.350] Craig Dalton: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we're super stoked. We launched on Indiegogo, our Smart VR viewer, six days ago. We're already at 150% of our campaign goal. Smart VR is really the culmination of the last two years' work in the industry. We wanted to develop a tool that our industry peers could use, something you could bring out in a boardroom show some smartphone VR content on our viewer and feel proud about. Cardboard is a phenomenal material for the brandability, the cost and distribution of it, but we would never argue that it's a full consumer product and something that you would bring into the boardroom. So as I mentioned, smart VR, we really feel like it's the tool the industry needs and a consumer product that once you've recognized the value of smartphone VR, you're going to want to own this thing. So when you get that push notification that Discovery VR just launched some new content, you're going to be able to grab the viewer out of your pocket, pop your smartphone in. and view the content. Even more important than that, I think, for the industry is that you're likely to use SmartVR in a public place because it's so portable. And if VR can be used in public, it can be shared. We all see that when people demo VR, that they have that VR smile that Robert Scoble talks about a lot. When you see that smile, the guy next to you is grabbing that viewer out of your hands. And in our opinion, That's how VR is going to grow. And really, I think it's not overstating it that the success of the cardboard ecosystem in 2016 is really going to be a harbinger for how fast the higher fidelity systems will gain acceptance in the world. So we're really committed to that. We're committed to our partnership with Google, really to that end, to bring VR to the people.

[00:13:26.956] Kent Bye: So with SmartVR, it seems like it is a portable unit that you, it's a plastic, you can fold it up. Talk a bit about the process of, you know, experimenting with capacitive touch and how you use touch within this viewer.

[00:13:38.821] Craig Dalton: Sure. So we, back in 2014, we invented the world's first capacitive touch viewer. It was our V1.2 viewer. And, uh, it was quite elaborate to make. It took some time. It's really sort of focused on the DIY type customer and of which there was a ton of those back in 2014. But it's a little complicated to build and what we found was that any capacitive touch mechanism is bound to fail either over time or due to compatibility issues with the individual's phone. So we took a step back and we asked ourselves the very simple question, like, what is 100% reliable with capacitive touch? And it's the human finger or thumb. So within all of our viewers, we build access through the bottom of the viewer to touch the screen. So most of the development partners that we tend to work with are either using simple touch or stare and launch mechanisms to launch their different menu items on the applications.

[00:14:38.523] Kent Bye: So I guess one of the trade-offs with having the bottom open, I would think, would be the potential light leakage of light coming in and, you know, potentially changing the view. Have you found that that doesn't really matter so much because the LCD screen is so bright?

[00:14:52.701] Craig Dalton: Yeah, actually, you know, it is an issue that we tackled head-on with SmartVR. So a lot of the pocket-sized viewers that you see out there pay no regard to ambient light and its ability to touch the screen. With SmartVR, we have a lens cover that flips up and covers the top. We've also made a decision to keep both sides completely solid. So the ambient light that's getting in is through the bottom or just sort of a crack up at the top. So we can't block it out 100%, but it is something that we addressed to the ability we think is germane to the smartphone experience. Anything beyond that would possibly be a little bit overkill and would be a counterbalance to the pocketability, which we've really, really tried to guide the design towards.

[00:15:39.550] Kent Bye: Yeah I just took a look at it here at night inside and you know it's it's hard for me to know like and to really see the difference but from you just from a qualitatively looking at it can you tell the difference between you know covering it up versus having it open in the bottom?

[00:15:53.779] Craig Dalton: There is a difference in the sense of immersion you feel. I mean, one of the beauty things about Google Cardboard, the Cardboard version, is you just felt locked in that box. And that helped that sort of leap of faith we all take when moving into VR. So I do think it helps with immersion.

[00:16:11.775] Kent Bye: And so where do you see DodoCase in five years from now?

[00:16:14.937] Craig Dalton: Yeah, I see VR continuing to be an important part of our business. For those of your listeners who know us, we're a six and a half year old company known for our tablet and phone accessories. That continues to be part of the work. But VR is just so exciting. And we've made so many early relationships in VR and had such a great run with the Google team. We really see it's going to be a significant part of the business going forward.

[00:16:39.348] Kent Bye: So what do you want to experience in VR then?

[00:16:42.352] Craig Dalton: For me, it's really about travel. I love the experiences of going to different places in VR. Because for me, it inspires me to want to travel there in the real world. And it reminds me of experiences I've had on the ground. And I think on the smartphone, it's a really natural platform for that. I'm super bullish on 360 imagery as well as video, because I think it just adds to the experience. It brings me a little bit of presence in that environment. That's what I really love.

[00:17:14.229] Kent Bye: And so do you recommend any specific Google video tourism videos or exploration or 360 videos?

[00:17:21.437] Craig Dalton: I love some of the obvious ones like versus and the stuff they're doing in Cuba, the clouds over Syria piece. There's a couple of smaller apps. There's a team in London that has an app called Orbulus that's straight up the 50 best photo spheres in the world. And that's a great one to play around. They've got a great stare and view launch mechanism that makes it really easy to navigate around.

[00:17:46.418] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:17:53.224] Craig Dalton: To me it's sort of summarized in one word which is inspire. I think across the board VR has the ability to inspire us. It has the ability to help teach. It has the ability to help entertain. I think if it's done right it makes you want to do things. I climbed Mount Everest in one of the experiences today and I want to go mountain climb. It doesn't make me want to sit inside and have experiences. It makes you want to have those experiences and go out and seek the real world. You know, one of the big maybe misconceptions in the broader world of consumers about VR that it can be incredibly isolating and depressing, that it's going to drive us all into basements around the world. I think it's the exact opposite. I think it's going to connect people and inspire people.

[00:18:41.175] Kent Bye: Great. Anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?

[00:18:44.098] Craig Dalton: I'm pleased to be on the program. I love listening to what you've done so far. Love the listeners' support for the SmartVR campaign. I think using VR out there in public is going to be critical to the growth.

[00:18:56.127] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. Thank you. So that was Craig Dalton. He's the CEO and founder of DodoCase. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, it's a pretty incredible story for how Craig got into working with virtual reality. And it seems like he's been a pretty key figure for really fostering a lot of these very early marketing initiatives by different agencies that are out there. And I've seen a number of different trade shows where there's these 360 video experiences that were being shown on Cardboard. as well as these different initiatives that were being sent out, either from the outside magazine, which had like 75,000 units, or a number of different car companies, like Porsche, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, as well as some of the very earliest and first campaigns, like from Seven for All, Mankind with Elle magazine, as well as some of these digital agencies like OMD and Havas, who had sent it out as a Christmas card greeting back in 2014. So to me it's just kind of an interesting slice of history looking back and seeing the evolution of VR and kind of the first branded advertising experiences and how cardboard was really the perfect fit for a lot of these 360 video experiences and still for a number of people who may not have the access to resources to be able to buy some of these higher-end hardwares, even for some of the mobile HMDs, this is still a viable way for a lot of people to be able to enjoy a lot of 360 videos and kind of be a low bar of entry for a lot of different people. So I think it'll be interesting to see the long-term support for Cardboard as the Daydream headset launches here on October 4th. That's going to be here. Early next week, we're going to see some of our first sights of what's going to happen with this new capabilities that actually has a 3DOF controller. But I still imagine that Cardboard is not going to go away. People are still going to be using it, and it may still be some people's primary way to experience a lot of 360 video up until we have more access to the higher-end systems. So I just really respect the entrepreneurial spirit of Craig and what he was able to take this idea and basically turning around and put something announced to the market within 24 hours and very quickly included within the Google keynote to just see how Quickly the ecosystem has spread which again I think points to the open mindset that Google has taken with the Android Ecosystem is just to put stuff out there and have a very low barrier to entry and as opposed to the more curated approach of and walled garden approach of something like Apple and So, you tend to see a lot more open source projects and capabilities within the Android ecosystem, and I expect to see the similar type of spirit play out, continuing with the Google Cardboard as well as the Daydream headset. So, that's all that I have for today. If you'd like to support the podcast, then tell your friends, spread the word, and become a donor at patreon.com slash voicesofvr.

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