New York Times delivers virtual reality

As I write this, my kids – ages 17, 15, and 9 – are into hour two of watching virtual reality videos on my iPhone’s VRSE app. Max, the youngest, is currently flying high above New York City, although what he is really doing is walking in circles too close to our glass coffee table for my liking.

I ordered a virtual reality viewer from Amazon upon reading about the New York Times virtual reality (VR) initiative, which saw 1.3 million cardboard viewers distributed with the Sunday Times on November 8.

So far, the kids have watched a U2 video, two Saturday Night Live sketches, and a New York Times Magazine video called “Walking New York.” None have watched the Times Magazine’s wonderful, but serious, short documentary “The Displaced.”

The media has been abuzz since the Times announced that it was making its big push into the VR space. That push consists of the launch of its own virtual reality app and a handful of in-house short videos including one sponsored by GE and another financially supported by Mini.

The Times execution follows on the heels of The Wall Street Journal, Vice News, ABC, CNN, and even Gannett’s Des Moines Register, all posting 360-degree videos that allow audiences to take in every possible angle of their video journalism.

Later next year, Associated Press is planning to release a series of VR features in partnership with a Los Angeles production company.

At the centre of the Times big play is “The Displaced,” which provides a glimpse into the lives of three children uprooted by war. It’s a heartbreaking film that sets aside narrative flow in favor of setting the viewer down in center of these displaced lives without judgment or point of view. And that appears to be the point. You are there, a first-hand observer of what has become of each of these children’s worlds.

The Times announced its newest foray by distributing low-cost VR viewer Google Cardboard, which came packaged with the Sunday print edition.

Cardboard isn’t a terribly complicated piece of technology. The product is literally a corrugated cardboard box and some Velcro that you fold to create a slot for your smartphone with flaps on the side to block your peripheral vision. Inside is a pair of cheap plastic lenses that transform the images on your phone’s screen into an immersive 3D-like environment.

Watching the videos through a VR headset is optional, but highly recommended. Headphones add immensely to the experience, as well.

At first blush, the move appears inspired: Cutting-edge, highly immersive content and a dream distribution story that makes the print publication the relevant mechanism of delivery, and therefore central to the strategy. The “Google Cardboard” goggles are light, and what better way to get it into the hands of a million people than as a newspaper insert?

But some reviews have not been kind.

Fortune published a story the next day under the headline “Why ‘The New York Times’ VR App Gave Some People Double Vision This Weekend.”

MIT’s Technology Review took a similar slant under the headline “New York Times Virtual-Reality Documentary Is Moving But Occasionally Nauseating.” The article also points out that downloading a VR documentary requires many hundred megabytes of data.

Says Newsweek: “The Times is hardly the first to adopt this new form of spherical storytelling. It follows the likes of ABC, The Wall Street Journal, and Vice News, each of which has used the technology but failed (so far) to make it a staple tool in its journalistic arsenal.”

The New Yorker went so far as to produce a great piece of comedic video skewering the whole trend culminating in the punch line, “I know what the critics have said: It’s clunky, it’s expensive, it’s thoroughly impractical, it recreates an experience you could, well, just have. But you know, I’ve got to say, when I tried it for myself, I knew they were right.“

But by and large, most media outlets have been supportive of the effort and direction, even the ones that criticised. And why not? Don’t we all hope that something potentially this cool can come along and elevate our businesses?

“The mission of the Times is to bring its readers to the story, not just report on it from a distance. With VR, the Times has taken a huge leap ahead in doing so,” writes Mashable.

Says The Boston Globe: “For all the accolades, this short film is likely a revolutionary proof of concept, like the Lumière brothers’ 1895 film of a train pulling into a station, rather than the model for what the genre will become.”

Wired probably best summed up the opportunity under the headline “Google Cardboard’s New York Times Experiment Just Hooked a Generation on VR.” In the piece, Wired editor Josh Valcarcel notes the Times distribution of Google Cardboard to readers made technology that once seemed remote suddenly accessible.

“I don’t know what the exact year is, but I believe that up to a certain age, any technology a kid encounters registers as ‘normal.’ To me, a world without colour TV or personal computers is an abstraction. For a host of kids as of yesterday, so is a world without VR,” writes Valcarcel.

“For good or ill, Google Cardboard is just good enough to imprint a new paradigm on a nation of 8-year-olds. From now on, kids who’ve had the VR experience have a new set of expectations of what it should mean to interact with a computer. Imagine what they’ll expect by the time they’re 18.”

This is kind of what was running through my mind as I watched my 9-year-old kneeling on our living room floor looking straight down and shouting “Oh my Gosh, Daddy! I’m in a helicopter. I’m flying over New York.”

About Peter Vamos

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