Developers Using Cardboard to Test VR Environments at PAX East 2019



Colin McMahon

PAX East, which was held in Boston, MA, March 28th to 31st, 2019, is one of the largest gaming technology expos in the world. The four-day event, which in the past has drawn crowds of over 80,000, once again enjoyed a well-attended year. While no official number has been given, Keypoint Intelligence – InfoTrends (InfoTrends) estimates that around 100,000 people visited the show. While PAX is an event mainly focused on video games and gaming as a whole, it also serves as a technology showcase. Over the past several years, we have followed developments in virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and 3D printing at PAX East.

PAX East Boston


This year, we were fortunate enough to attend a panel hosted by veteran VR developers. The panel, which featured everything from indie game creators to NASA contractors, discussed the methodology behind creating engaging and rewarding VR experiences. While the conversation covered many interesting facets, including how the user body affects VR development, one item in particular caught our attention: cardboard.

Why Cardboard Works in VR Development

Cardboard and VR have a surprisingly interconnected history. The Google Cardboard was released as a free product to the public in 2014, helping consumers gain a basic understanding of VR technology. Google Cardboard was in fact just several pieces of corrugated cardboard, which could be folded together and paired with a smartphone to deliver simple VR experiences. Since then, many companies have used VR to craft budget sets – the latest being Nintendo with its upcoming Labo VR kit.

At PAX East, however, developers were not discussing cardboard as hardware material. Instead, Shawn Patton, principal designer at Schell Games, revealed that his company has started to use the material during software creation and testing. In a method he calls “brown-boxing,” Patton stated that he and his team will construct an environment out of cardboard during VR development.

The reason behind this directly ties into VR’s immersive properties. When constructing virtual environments in a traditional landscape, developers are detached – viewing the entire area through a computer monitor. In VR, however, the user must enter the environment to fully test its functionality. From a development standpoint, this has created challenges.

In the past, developers used very simple environment layouts to test an area before devoting resources to rendering and texturing the space. This saved on time and money, creating a purely “white” or “orange” space that allowed for functionality testing. In VR, this does not work, as it means the tester would have to enter a fully uniform area and attempt to navigate it. The tester is essentially blind – as every part of the environment is the same color.

So – a VR environment needs at least some rendering or differentiation to make it maneuverable. Or, the developer must first test a VR space on a traditional computer monitor, increasing the likelihood of human error during the testing process. With cardboard, however, the developer can see the entire space in a tangible way – very similar to how they would in VR. This is allowing for comprehensive environment testing with less resource commitment.

It’s a bit unorthodox, but the panelists collectively support this, stating it is important for developers to stop thinking of VR development alongside other, traditional product creation models. “It’s not a game, we need to learn this,” was a common message shared by more than one panelist.

Figure 1: The Oculus Booth was centrally placed at PAX East 2019

Oculus Rift PAX East VR

InfoTrends’ Opinion

VR is still in its early days, but its presence is already being felt in several industries. At PAX East, lines of people waited hours to try the latest in VR technology from Oculus, while still many others played games on earlier versions of Rift and Vive. In other industries, VR is seen as a new prototyping tool – a way to experiment on projects without committing expensive resources. It is also being used for training in many companies, including for NASA.

For VR to be most effective, developers must be able create engaging experiences that feel natural to the user. It is unusual, and strangely charming, that cardboard continues to be a positive component when it comes to making VR more accessible, whether it is as a headset apparatus or as a software testing tool, the use of cardboard shows continued potential of existing materials when it comes to technological innovations. If cardboard, which is reusable, affordable, and disposable, can help VR in a way that high-tech digital models can’t, then it merely serves as another opportunity to highlight the versatility of this packaging material.

As for VR itself, InfoTrends saw nothing at PAX East to suggest a commercial breakthrough is imminent. Nevertheless, we continue to see steady progress in VR technology suggesting that, at some point, it may be a staple product in the consumer tech market. Please look for more of our highlights and insights in our coming complete PAX East show review.