The NYT Is About to Launch VR’s Big Mainstream Moment
On Nov. 7, a couple of huge things are going to happen in the world of virtual reality. They’ll be wrapped up in one big package like a VR burrito, and the ramifications for VR’s mainstream future may be monumental.
On Tuesday, The New York Times announced a partnership with Google Cardboard to introduce a new immersive documentary film. As part of the effort, more than a million little cardboard VR headsets will be packed into the already-chunky NYT Sunday bundle. Another 300,000 or so Times Insider subscribers and long-tenured digital subscribers will get the Google Cardboard viewers, too.
Those Cardboard headsets won’t provide a virtual-reality experience by themselves; you’ll need to slide your smartphone into the low-cost viewers to witness the VR magic. But all of a sudden, 1.3 million people will have VR headsets in their hands—many of them for the first time—and the first thing they’ll watch will be the Times’ upcoming VR documentary, “The Displaced.”
“I think it’s kind of a seminal moment regardless of whether it’s journalism or not,” says Brian Blau, research director for innovative personal technologies at Gartner. “It’s Google and the Times, two well-known brands. They’re giving away more than a million of these. That, I think, is the biggest deal… Having this many Cardboards out there is great. I’ve never heard of another organization attempting to give away that many for a single purpose.”
According to New York Times Magazine editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein, the project is “a story about three children who are caught in a global refugee crisis,” and the running time will be around 10 to 12 minutes. The team behind the project is as impressive as the technology that makes it work: The Times worked with VR production company Vrse, led by award-winning music-video director Chris Milk, who built the camera rig and supplied a crew that has created a few VR projects already. The Times also had its own director of photography—Pulitzer Prize-winning videographer Ben Solomon—on the sets.
Despite the talent and experience behind the scenes, plenty of trial-and-error was involved. Silverstein says because VR as an art form is still in its nascent stages, the team leaned on experimentation. For one thing, the crew had to stay out of each shot—a hard thing to do when the camera rig is capturing a full 360 degrees and there’s nowhere to hide.
“[Solomon] often commented that shooting VR versus shooting traditional video is the difference between hunting with a rifle versus setting a bear trap,” Silverstein told WIRED. “That really kind of captures it. It is challenging to be in the field and not be able to hold the camera and chase the action yourself.”
But while most VR films use a stationary camera, this project will be a bit different. Silverstein says that in the process of trying out new techniques, the crew found a way to stay out of the shot while adding to the narrative.
“We have some boom shots where the camera is being moved through space, and the person holding the camera is one of our subjects,” Silverstein explains. “That’s how we got around the fact that we didn’t want to have our crew in the film, so we have these cool shots where it’s a kid running through a refugee camp. If you look in one direction, you’re running, and if you turn around you see the kid who’s holding the other end of the boom.”
“The Displaced” isn’t The New York Times Magazine’s first VR video. In April, they also worked with Vrse on a 360-degree video about the making of the magazine’s April 26 cover. It might not even be the highest-profile VR journalism project in recent weeks: CNN recently provided a live stream of the Democratic debates for users of the Samsung Gear VR headset.
But while the CNN livestream required specific Samsung phones and a $100 to $200 headset, this upcoming New York Times is designed to be more accessible to those who haven’t yet experienced VR, and as a result, more widely viewed. By distributing 1.3 million Google Cardboard viewers with its upcoming papers—and by launching a free NYT VR app for iOS and Android—the Nov. 7 issue should have a massive impact in the world of VR and journalism. It may even introduce an intersection of the two, and set a new precedent.
“What really drew us to The New York Times, besides obviously their great reputation and tradition and journalism, was their vision,” says Mike Jazayeri, Director of Project Management for VR at Google. Jazayeri says the two companies started discussing the partnership at the South by Southwest festival back in March, and Google immediately saw it as a great fit.
“What people do with it, how they use it, and what The New York Times and Google do with it afterwards is part of the answer,” says Gartner’s Blau. “You hope that they use it as more than as a gimmick.”
That is certainly the plan. In the best-case scenario, Google’s Jazayeri says, the focus on well-produced episodic VR content could make the NYT VR app a groundbreaking moment for the medium, much like NPR’s Serial did for the podcast genre.
“We didn’t want to do something that was just a gimmick or a one-off,” Jazayeri explains. “It was clear that they wanted to do something that mattered, and to do it at an unprecedented scale… This isn’t a one-time commitment. It’s a commitment to tell multiple stories, and so I think that’s what VR needs today. It needs to go beyond just demos and gimmicks and into actual, consistent episodic experiences that draw the viewer back again and again.”
If you already have your own Google Cardboard viewer or another smartphone-compatible VR headset, you may be able to see “The Displaced” before that Nov. 7 issue lands on your doorstep. According to Silverstein, the NYT VR app for iOS and Android will launch on Nov. 5, and the app will include this latest film as well as the previous project shot in April. After the app launches, the VR experiences will also be available as YouTube360 videos and a 2D desktop video. Silverstein says a third VR film is slated to launch in December, a fourth in 2016, and that VR content holds “a lot of power and importance for the future of journalism in general.”
And while VR journalism is so futuristic that it barely even exists yet, Silverstein says the New York Times’s tradition and existing infrastructure are central to their virtual reality strategy.
“You bring the expertise that The New York Times has in the context of international reporting—our deep roots in that very type of reporting with our bureaus all over the world and our knowledge of how to operate in these very difficult environments,” Silverstein says. “You add to that a new technology like VR, and we are simply able to take it places that no other company could… The reason why The New York Times is able to do that is because of the legacy print operations that we maintain. It’s allowed us to have these great delivery systems that can put it into the hands of all these people. The hardware is deceptively simple, and brilliantly so.”