I am Google Cardboard.
I come to the realization slowly.
The package arrives in the mail midweek, but I don’t get around to opening it until a rainy Friday afternoon, The Son of the Year sleeping soundly on The Wife of the Year’s chest while she reads the New York Times on her iPad.
It really is made out of cardboard, I think to myself, as I remove the box and unfold the instruction sheet. Assembling it takes some rudimentary origami skills. I’m nervous, worried a torn tab might ruin it.
I’m all thumbs but I pull through, consulting a YouTube clip tied to a QR code printed on the sheet. The man in the video keeps saying how simple it is to put together. And really, despite my fumbling, it is.
As I begin to bend it into place, I think of Jony Ive pronouncing, in his careful, English accent, every last syllable of al-u-min-i-um in an Apple keynote video and how, despite all that crazy industrial design he reverently details, it’ll actually be just some simple folded cardboard I bought for less than 20 bucks on Amazon that will turn my $800 phone into a virtual reality device; a (not so) poor man’s Oculus Rift.
I manage to fold it over once, twice, three times – and it’s sealed shut. I press open the starter app and slide my iPhone in. Peering through the eye holes now, I’m getting a tutorial for how to enter a room and how to return to the home screen. I get most of it, but it takes me a moment to figure out how to toggle through the menu items. Until I realize: The items are all around me, in virtual space. All I have to do is turn around until I’m looking directly at each of them.
I enter my first room, and I’m studying artifacts of various kinds – a tribal mask, a bird sculpture, even a virtual Google Cardboard. Soon, I’m inside the American Museum of Natural History; next I’m standing on a glacier in Iceland; and then, coolest of all, on the surface of Mars. It’s all a bit blurry, and not quite seamless. I can see in the distance beyond the edges of what the Mars Rover can see, and they’re blank panels like yet-to-be rendered surfaces in a videogame, only creepier because I’m standing inside it, on an alien planet with an unnatural horizon line.
I leave Mars, and I enter “Kaleidoscope.” All around me the word “Google” repeats several times across my 360 degrees of sight. I stare at the words, turn around to see them all – noticing they seem to be a mass of blocks or large cartoon-colored pixels – but I can’t quite put my finger on what they do. Then I put my finger on it, literally, pulling the Viewmaster-like lever on the side of my cardboard box and the words immediately explode into glorious shrapnel that flies in my face and arranges itself in random patterns as I twist and turn to change their angles. That first intense moment is truly remarkable.
Matt Marrone is a senior MLB editor at ESPN.com. He has been Unwinnable’s reigning Rookie of the Year since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @thebigm.