First impressions of the New York Times VR project

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.

New York Times VR screenshot.

NYT screenshot.

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.


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12 Responses to First impressions of the New York Times VR project

  1. CogDog says:

    I’ve not tried it yet; but sounds like the target ads you described are the kinds of levels needed to produce these? The description you gave reminded me of but a it turns out that’s the producer of the NYT story, as well as others; see

    I ought to hold any opinion until I have seen more, but wonder if the novelty of it is enough to carry the experience beyond the first ‘gagaga amazing’.

    I am more interested in the opposite end, like this young student’s art

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    On Vance Stevens’ Learning2gether hangout yesterday — Episode 299 – David Winet on Virtual Reality Headsets and Robots for Teaching and Learning:

  3. hrheingold says:

    I’m jaded if not skeptical about VR — or at least I have been for the past 20 years — but Oculus is going to be a paradigm shift. The clunky headset today is equivalent to the early mobile phones. Once it is loose in the world, 21st century VR is going to evolve quickly.

    • Howard, that’s a huge analogy. If Oculus and Cardboard are at the mobile phone level circa 1992, we need to seize VR with both hands and be very mindful.

    • Josh Moon says:

      My only other VR experience was trying the red-lined Nintendo at Toys R Us when I was a kid and the Google Cardboard was so much better!

      I’m blogging about it today but my first impression was positive. We received a set of glasses at my library and everyone I shared it with was impressed. Many of us saw the potential once content creation gets richer, more accessible, and more data friendly.

      Sometimes technologies have to bounce against the wall a few times before they take. I sincerely believe we’re about to see a major adoption of this technology, from personal recreation, to higher ed, corporate world, k-12, etc. It’s a “neglect at our peril” moment.

  4. Pingback: Learning2gether with David Winet on Virtual Reality Headsets and Robots | Learning2gether

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