Polaroid's $99 nostalgia-fueled Cube seeks its spot in the GoPro world

The company that first brought the public instant film photography has a low-cost action camera that's about capturing everyday moments, not extreme experiences.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
11 min read

The Polaroid Cube is the iconic camera brand's latest unique crack at the action camera market currently dominated by GoPro. Nick Statt/CNET

Polaroid's name doesn't carry the weight it used to when it comes to personal photography, but the company's design DNA lives on in the few categories not yet gobbled up by newer technology. Now, as smartphone sensors catch up to digital, the hottest market for camera makers is the one market that's cornered by a single entity, GoPro, which went from surfing camera startup to unstoppable action sports giant. Polaroid thinks it has a solution and its creators call it the Cube .

The first thing you'll notice about the Cube is that it's tiny. It's so small in fact that it looks like a toy. The 35mm-tall device has a squishy button on top and a chrome concave attachment underneath that will fasten the camera to any magnetic surface. Its face contains a single lens that gives it a strange anthropomorphic quality, as if the Cube were the head of a cute, cartoony cyclops ready to record your daily happenings.

Watch this: Polaroid takes tiny cameras to a new level with the Cube

Pick up the square, however, and your perception of its build quality changes. At just 45 grams, it still has a pleasant heft, the kind of weight that would be negligible if strapped to your bike helmet or belt loop but enough to not feel cheap. The double-shot mold -- a firm plastic wrapped up in a rubber reminiscent of a pencil eraser -- makes it the kind of device you move between your fingers mindlessly as you think about something else. For $99, the device's small casing forgoes Wi-Fi to carry the 6-megapixel, 124-degree wide angle lens that captures still photos and 720p and 1080p video with a 90-minute battery.

"What we really wanted to do was to create something that was iconic, but also carried all these values that Polaroid has: simplicity, fun, ease of use, social," said Robert Brunner, a founding partner at design firm Ammunition and the predecessor to Jony Ive at Apple. Ammunition was responsible for crafting the look of the Cube from concept to finished product, with product designer Gregoire Vandenbussche leading the project. Ammunition's past clients include Beats Electronics -- Ammunition helped design its headphone and speaker line prior to the company's acquisition by Apple earlier this year -- and Barnes & Noble for its Nook e-reader.

Notably, the name Polaroid isn't etched anywhere on the Cube. In its place is the company's iconic rainbow stripe -- that's it.

The Cube , which begins shipping in October, is Polaroid's latest answer to GoPro's wildly successful Hero line of action cameras that have been become a case study for marketing and branding genius in the age of social media. Action cameras, sometimes called sports cameras, are devices typically without viewfinders or screens that can be strapped to your body or other objects, like quadcopter drones or surf boards. They capture first-person viewpoints, be they extreme daredevil feats or a bike ride to work, and have become a mainstay of the sports universe thanks to GoPro's meteoric rise over the last decade.

Over the last few years, Polaroid has introduced a handful of action cams under its XS line, from low-cost to higher-end Wi-Fi-enabled gadgets. The Cube is more realized. Marketed as a "mini-lifestyle camera," it's meant for people not keen on being a hero, in GoPro parlance, and just want a lightweight, nice-looking camera they can affix to almost anything. Tech specs and add-ons are secondary. Unlike its Polaroid brethren, the Cube has no mobile app and its limited feature set is mainly controlled through a stripped-down application that pops up when you plug it into your computer via micro USB.

Nick Statt/CNET

The growing market for action cameras is catching the eye of more than just Polaroid. Everybody -- from established companies like Sony, JVC and Kodak to action cam upstarts like Contour and iOn -- have been hungering for a piece of the pie in recent years. GoPro currently eats up more than 90 percent, went public in July at a $3 billion valuation, and is riding a stock price surge of more than 114 percent as it prepares to release its next camera, the Hero4. No Polaroid gadget, nor any device from a competing camera maker for that matter, will likely break GoPro's dominance any time soon. The Cube's mission is not to convert us from GoPro so much as it is to cater to the customers that wouldn't buy one in the first place.

"Devices like GoPro come from an aspect of extreme sports. They are really well done and well tailored for that," Brunner says. The thought process of the Cube was to "bring one-touch simplicity and then make it accessible from a cost point-of-view."

"$300 is a significant investment. $99 is like, 'I can check this out,'" he adds.

The Cube is designed be used without looking at it. Its only onboard setting -- a switch to toggle between 720p and 1080p video quality -- is hidden behind a backplate that requires a coin to get at. The device communicates to you through noise and its singular button. Stretches of microwave-sounding beeps let you know when the device has been turned on, when it takes a photo and went it starts and stops recording; one press for photo, two for video. Though it is water resistant, the Cube is not waterproof unless you buy the appropriate case and its bottom-side magnet is the linchpin feature, letting you attach it to a wide variety of everyday objects.

More importantly, the Cube is fueled by design nostalgia for an era when Polaroid was king. The company's retro appeal has exploded in the age of Instagram, which bases its now-unforgettable app icon on Polaroid's 1977 SX-70 Model 1000 OneStep camera. That mix of old-is-new-again appeal married to product simplicity, Polaroid hopes, will help drive the Cube's success for consumers that don't want to shell out $400 for a GoPro.

"There is very few brands that have 100 percent brand recognition around the world," says Polaroid CEO Scott Hardy, who joined the company in 2004 and took the reins in 2012. "We have the lifestyle appeal. So we integrated our iconic elements -- the Polaroid stripe, we think it brings out the heritage of who we are -- but on a device that is very relevant to today's consumer."

Polaroid's comeback rides on nostalgia

Compared to its bulky XS line of action cameras, the Cube is more in line with what Polaroid founder Edwin Land would have envisioned. Land was a visionary inventor and chemist who carried the company from the introduction of his instant film camera, the 1947 Model 50, all the way to the release of the brilliant and category-defining SX-70, a foldable leather-cased instant camera introduced in 1972 that is still regarded today as a design marvel.

"Not only was he one of the great inventors of our time but, more important, he saw the intersection of art and science and business and built an organization to reflect that," Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs once said. Jobs considered Land a personal hero and a "national treasure." He approached his business at Apple, before and after he was ousted as CEO, using Land's wisdom, which includes the famous Land quote, "Market research is what you do when your product isn't any good." The Apple logo, in one of its earlier iterations, used the same rainbow color scheme as Polaroid's.

Yet Polaroid, like many camera makers over the years, had a rough ride with the onset of digital photography and Land could not save it as Jobs did with Apple. (Land died in 1991 at the age of 81 and had left Polaroid years earlier, having invested the company heavily in what would become a failed product). By 2001, Polaroid declared bankruptcy and sold almost all of its assets including its name. In 2008, it declared bankruptcy again and announced it would cease production of instant film products. Polaroid now exists as a jointly held venture whose brand name is spread out among other companies, but has returned its anchor to a core line of camera hardware and printers.

A refurbished Polaroid SX-70 1000 model OneStep camera, the same model that inspired Instagram's logo, now uses film made by the Impossible Project after Polaroid left instant film in 2008. Photojojo

That's where nostalgia comes in. What Polaroid did not anticipate was that a group of devout Polaroid fans, led by Austrian photographer and SX-70 online vendor Florian Kaps, would purchase the last remaining factory on the planet -- located in Enschede, Netherlands -- capable of producing Polaroid instant film in 2008. Called the Impossible Project, after a famous Land quote, the initiative blossomed into a full-fledged company that now produces and sells instant film, refurbishes classic cameras that Polaroid now sells and has moved into designing its own line of vintage-inspired cameras.

The Impossible Project couldn't have picked a better moment. As smartphone photography became more powerful and ubiquitous, an interesting shift occurred. In the Instagram and Snapchat era -- when self-produced images, video and even professionally-made entertainment loses its value the moment after we experience it -- a market emerged for physical photos we hold onto and the age-old technology that pumps them out on the spot. Like vinyl records, instant film cameras came back in a big way, and Polaroid was there to embrace it with the help of the Impossible Project.

"You get swept away in that nostalgia," Robert Macauley, founder of mobile photo printer company LifePrint, told Vice in March of the appeal of film photography and instant prints in the digital age. "It's a much warmer experience," he added, than modern photo consumption, where "with the flick of your thumb you can look at 200 photos in less than two seconds." LifePrint makes a wireless printer that presses out on-the-spot photographs from your mobile phone or computer.

Beyond the revival of numerous Polaroid cameras, including the popular SX-70 Model 1000 OneStep, Polaroid began a partnership to produce the Socialmatic. Introduced as a concept in May 2012 from ADR Studio, the Socialmatic was a thin, square-shaped instant camera designed like the Instagram logo that would print like a classic Polaroid. The following year, after a swell of Internet interest pushed the product closer to reality, Polaroid swooped in and bought it, branding it with the Polaroid name. The camera is now slated for an early 2015 release.

Sarah Tew/CNET

"Our brand is going through a tremendous resurgence right now. A lot of it is because the younger demographic is obsessed with retro, cool stuff," Hardy says. "There's a reason why we're probably the only consumer electronics brand that's in Urban Outfitters and Nordstrom -- Polaroid has that lifestyle element."

With this rich and tangled photography history as its foundation, the Cube is the most Polaroid-y product in years. While GoPro eschews anything remotely aesthetically pleasing -- preferring instead a brash design that looks like it could fall down the side of a mountain or be chunked out of a plane -- the Cube celebrates its design, a mark more of Ammunition's eye than Polaroid's.

Like many artful consumer electronics, the Cube was built of compromises: achieving the 90-minute battery life required cutting out Wi-Fi; leaving out the explicit Polaroid branding gave rise to the more subtle rainbow stripe; including a magnet opened up an entire accessory line while giving the standalone Cube a novel, use-anywhere function.

"Polaroid wanted to introduce it at the Consumer Electronics Show as a feedback mechanism," Brunner said. "So they just put it in their booth in a glass case and didn't make a lot of noise there." The non-functioning prototype Cube, then called the C3, ended up on numerous best-of lists and product round-ups. The surprising response refocused Ammunition's efforts to create something that would truly live up to Land's perfectionism.

Baked inside the Cube is the Polaroid ethos that started with Land, who once only half-kiddingly said he created instant film in a few hours and spent 30 years perfecting it. Even though the possibility is absent on the Cube, Polaroid embodies "the magic of taking a picture and actually printing it," Hardy says. "They [kids] take Instagram photos of their Polaroid photos."

Brunner is a little less forgiving when it comes to signature design. "I've shown the Cube to someone who is 24 and they said you ripped that off Instagram," he says. "It was pretty hilarious."

Getting past GoPro

To call GoPro the elephant in the room in any conversation about action cams isn't quite accurate. GoPro is the sky-diving elephant live streaming to a YouTube audience of 2.2 million that just happens to signify the most remarkable electronics brand dominance in recent history. GoPro has so cemented its name, burned it onto our retinas with such velocity, that it's the only action camera a consumer may ever think about buying for the foreseeable future.

"The GoPro brand is just so spectacular. It's really the Kleenex of the category," says Charles Anderson, an analyst with Dougherty & Co. "Nobody walks into a store looking to buy an action camera. They don't know what that means. They go into a store to buy a GoPro."

That kind of brand recognition -- being the go-to camera for surfing, skiing, snowboarding, mountain bike racing, sky diving... the list goes on -- makes it near impossible for anyone to break through. Even if Polaroid markets the Cube as a lifestyle product, it won't matter if consumers are constantly inundated with GoPro marketing, which spans every form of social media and has brokered mind-boggling partnerships.

GoPro CEO Nick Woodman has even more to celebrate since taking his company public in June. GoPro stock is now up 114 percent and its market cap has soared to $8.6 billion. Getty Images

When Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian skydiver, broke a half a dozen world records when he jumped out of a helium balloon 24 miles high, up in the stratosphere, in October 2012, he was wearing a GoPro. Every pro action sports athlete, from surfing's Kelly Slater to snowboarding's Shaun White, have GoPro partnerships and the device is even crossing over into mainstream sports, with appearances in the NFL starting this year.

"We can already test the hypothesis in a way because Sony has been in the market a couple of years and hasn't done anything," Anderson adds of competition among action cam makers. GoPro's Hero line has models at $199, $299 and $399, which puts the company in direct competition with any other camera maker that dares charge $100 or more for a device without a screen.

Yet Anderson points out that GoPro leaves room at the bottom end. That means the Polaroid Cube, at $99, has a chance if it markets itself properly as a way to get one's feet wet with recording daily activities from unique vantage points.

"One of the interesting dynamics about GoPro is we believe their best-selling camera is their most expensive camera -- the black edition," he says. "It's one of these strange markets where there is a flight to quality. It's not a market where if GoPro reduced their prices, they would sell more of them."

Polaroid's Hardy thinks that's the key. "From our standpoint, you need something that is more affordable," he says.

Whether affordable is a true selling point for people who are constantly dared to be ever-more-heroic in their actions and their broadcasting of them to the world is unclear. The Cube's limited specs and functionality will certainly be fighting a market that, as Anderson says, keeps soaring upward in video resolution, storage capacity and wireless connectivity. Polaroid plans on expanding and upgrading the Cube line if it's successful, but it does not have any concrete plans in the works at the moment.

All the while, Polaroid will be asking us to remember what it's like to love a product not as much for what it can do, but for what it stands for. In the smartphone age, the instant film champion is still figuring out what it represents beyond the memory of something past. Brunner, who remembers growing up with Polaroid and its dominating cultural cachet, is both nostalgic for that era and also saddened that current generations of photo takers live in a world of indifferent apps and forgettable snapshots, a place in which physical photos and the brands they built cling on only in niche markets.

"People would like Polaroid to come back," he said. "It's just one of those great American brands."