What better way to conjure the 1980s, Taylor Swift probably thought, than by using a Polaroid picture of herself as an album cover. Inside the album are 13 more vintage-esque photos. You could say that Polaroid is having its moment. Again.
This time around the brand is resonating with a generation whose parents experienced the first boom in analog instant photography. And now the company is trying to sustain that interest with the Cube, an adorably tiny HD action-video camera priced at $99 for kids who can’t afford a GoPro (GPRO), which can cost two to four times as much.
“GoPro has done an incredible job building a new category in the digital imaging space,” says Polaroid Chief Executive Officer Scott Hardy. “But when we look at that market, we think it can be much bigger by not just targeting the professional and amateur and aspirational thrill-seekers but going after more of the lifestyle segments.” The Cube, which goes on sale today, is geared toward people who are more likely to strap a camera to the handlebars of their fixed-wheel bike than to swim with sharks.
To design the mini-gadget with mass appeal, Polaroid turned to Ammunition, whose founder, Robert Brunner, once worked at Apple (AAPL) and is responsible for the look of Beats headphones and Square’s mobile payment system. The veteran designer built a gadget that has none of the trappings of professional equipment. Gone are the aluminum body and digital display. Instead, the Cube is an unpretentious black rubberized cube that’s as tactile and durable as a pencil eraser.
With rounded corners and shock-absorbent skin, the Cube is meant to be held—and dropped. “You’re not going to be afraid to hand it to a toddler,” says Ammunition’s senior industrial designer, Gregoire Vandenbussche. “It’s made to withstand a few drops without a problem.” It’s also water-resistant.
Cramming all the camera’s guts into a package that’s less than 1.5 inches around presented some challenges. When the designers handed the plans over to the development team, they were told the battery wouldn’t fit. The problem temporarily threatened the designers’ vision of a cube until they came up with a solution of using two rechargeable batteries, one on each side. The configuration had the added benefit of creating a balanced block. After a few nips and tucks, each side of the gadget ended up measuring 35 millimeters—a serendipitous homage to old-school film stock.
Another hat tip to Polaroid’s history is the rainbow-colored band that runs across the Cube’s midsection, though not every age group recognizes the throwback. “We’ve had people under the age of 24 suggest that we ripped off Instagram,” Brunner says.
Beyond the physical allusions, Brunner says he wanted to make the camera as fun and easy to use as the original Polaroid point-and-shoots. The Cube has a single button on top—press once to take a still image, twice for video. A door in the back, unscrewed with a coin, reveals the memory card, a micro USB port for charging the device and for downloading video, and a switch for choosing between 720p or 1080p resolution. The resolution is on par with that of a GoPro, which also offers an intermediate option of 960p.
As one would expect with a camera that’s half the price, the Cube includes fewer features. There’s no photo blast or remote control, while the cheapest GoPro offers both. But what it sacrifices in terms of features, the Cube makes up for in convenience. A magnet on the bottom attaches to metal surfaces without the need for another accessory (although there are plenty of those, including helmet, bike, suction, and tripod mounts).
Polaroid was considered a leading innovator under its founder, Edwin Land, but saw a steep decline in demand beginning in the 1980s. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2001, a decade after Land’s death. Since 2009, Polaroid has been owned by Gordon Brothers Brands and Hilco Consumer Capital. It no longer does R&D in-house, working instead with startups and firms such as Ammunition to build the hardware around innovations like the ZINK (Zero Ink) printing technology it uses in its instant digital cameras.
Brunner previously collaborated with Polaroid and Lady Gaga on camera sunglassesin a marketing effort to give the brand more visibility. With the Cube, Polaroid hopes it can build on both its heritage and the growing action-camera market. As CEO Hardy says: “We’ve always been about helping people capture and share life’s memorable moments easily.”