This weekend the New York Times launched a virtual reality effort. The “newspaper” published a 3d video documentary for mobile devices, and also distributed Google Cardboard sets to some home subscribers.
Here are some notes based on my first impressions. For context, I haven’t played much with VR since the 1990s, when I used MUDs, MOOs, helmet-and-glove setups etc. in some of my classes. I’m interested in Cardboard and Oculus Rift, but haven’t done much with them so far.
To get to the Times’ VR content I waded through the pages of its magazine. There I found print versions of the story and directions on how to get the apps, which are available for free from the Android and iOS stores. (The irony of finding a story about people suffering horribly amidst lavish ads targeted at very rich people is obvious and pungent.)
“The Displaced” is essentially that mobile device app, which pulls in some very, very large downloads. You can watch the results from your phone, or by looking at your phone when it rests in Google’s cardboard goggles.
Formally, the VR content consists of several video files. You watch and listen to them as they play. As befits video, you can pause the flow. Unlike most video, you can swivel your phone and/or head around to peer into a scene in all directions. It’s a good idea to rewind and rewatch scenes from different angles, since it’s easy to miss key details.
It took work to get into these clips. Turning my phone didn’t always yield the intuitive response. It wasn’t clear where the main action was going to be. Finding subtitles sometimes took rotating the point of view.
I enjoyed some techno-nostalgia, remembering taking a class to a VR lab in Ann Arbor in 1997, and two of my students making a final class project out of homebrew VR kit. “The Displaced” is far better as video, of course.
Watching and listening, I was reminded of a classic element in computer gaming. “The Displaced” is like a group of cut scenes: linear, essentially non-interactive at a narrative level, potentially content-rich.
These are emotionally affective videos. It would be hard for them not to be, since the subject matter – displaced children – tugs primal heartstrings. But the VR adds to the emotion, partly due to good filming, and also to expanding our sense of space. That sounds cold, but I’m referring to being able to see Oleg’s shattered schoolhouse, or to track refugees as they chase down airborne food aid.
This isn’t complex narrative work. It’s really a set of short interviews with the questions left out.
As a storytelling device, I’m concerned about production requirements at this stage. These are professionally produced videos, not DIY, and not made by the stories’ subjects. This account describes teams struggling to get the tech working. When will non-media people be able to make VR stories about themselves?
Back to space: that might be the signature contribution of VR to storytelling. Establishing a three dimensional volume and letting viewers romp through it can be powerful. I’m not sure if we know what types of stories are best suited for this, or when photos and video would suffice. What stories benefit most from emphasizing location, not just as setting but as a continuous stage or omnipresent fellow character? I didn’t see the recent US presidential debates in VR, and am not sure they would have benefitted.
I’m intrigued, skeptical, and interested in doing some work in this space. I also have more thoughts about what VR means for storytelling and education, but that’s for another post. Or posts.