When Google first introduced its Cardboard VR concept on June 25th, 2014, there were only a few ways you could try it out yourself. You could either get one for free if you were an I/O attendee, make it yourself based on Google's open-source designs or just buy one. Indeed, a few hours after the I/O keynote ended, Dodocase, a San Francisco-based maker of phone and tablet cases, became the first-ever company to make and sell Cardboard headsets. It sold 15,000 units in the first three weeks, and the headset has since become one of Dodocase's more popular products (the company also made a second gen of it last year). Now two years after it made that decision, Dodocase is ready to step up its VR efforts with a new device it's debuting on Indiegogo. It's called SMARTvr, and no, it's not made from cardboard anymore.
Made primarily out of glass-filled nylon and synthetic polymers, SMARTvr is essentially an ultraportable version of Google's Cardboard headset. The entire thing is designed to be durable; the hinges are metal, there's a faux-leather lens cover lined with microsuede and it's even held in place with a magnet. As for the lenses, they're 34mm biconvex acrylic. Folded up, SMARTvr is quite svelte at 65.5mm by 120.5mm by 16.5mm, fits into most any pocket and is super lightweight at only 3.2 ounces. Flip it open and you'll find two slots where you can put any phone that's between 6 mm and 12.5 mm thick (that's pretty much most phones on the market).
With the phone loaded, the cover acts as a way to block ambient light. I tried this out for a little bit with a Jaunt VR app and a concert scene, and it helped create a more immersive environment. Using it without the cover was still pretty good, but it didn't feel quite as captivating. If you're in an area with low light or you don't want to use the cover, you can also remove it entirely by sliding it out. According to Dodocase CEO and co-founder Craig Dalton, this would also be a good opportunity for brands and advertisers to insert their own custom-branded covers. SMARTvr was made with Google's blessings and complies 100 percent with the Works with Cardboard specifications.
So why do this? Why not just stick to Cardboard? "We started seeing what's coming in terms of content," says Dalton. "Consumers are starting to want something that's more durable than just cardboard. Something that's more portable, with them all the time."
But what's more intriguing is that Dalton believes smartphone VR is the future. Instead of acting as just a gateway drug into higher-fidelity systems like the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, he believes smartphone VR is a destination in and of itself. In fact, he thinks that smartphone VR is going to surpass all other platforms combined in revenue, importance and adoption. "We all have smartphones in our pocket," he says, adding that with the low cost of the SMARTvr -- it's $39.95 -- it'll be that much easier for everyday folks to get into and share VR content. "Even if I have a Vive in my house, that doesn't solve the problem of sharing the content with the world. You can't come to my house every time I want to show you something cool."
That said, SMARTvr is by no means the only Cardboard maker to go premium. For example, Figment VR is an iPhone case that's also a VR viewer, and we've seen several others attempt to add headstraps, like the EightOnes VR kit. It would have been easy for Dodocase to make a phone case that's also a VR headset -- it makes phone cases after all -- but Dalton says he doesn't believe in making his phone a VR device 24/7. "We decided very specifically we wanted to be phone agnostic. VR is there for when we want it, and it's not for when we don't."
As for the lack of headstraps, he says that Google actually forbids it in the Works with Cardboard program. "We're specifically grounded in a certain type of experience that's called 'snackable.' It's not meant for half an hour. You're meant to use it when it's convenient for you." So the idea is you'd use it quickly and then hand it off to someone next to you to share.
Dalton believes that Dodocase's biggest competition isn't other headset makers but consumer lack of awareness. But even that's rapidly changing.
"We see VR as a significant part of the business," says Dalton. "2016 is going to be a breakthrough year for VR."