New York Times partners with Google to ship over 1 million Cardboards for NYT VR app launch [Exclusive Interview]

by Will Mason • October 20th, 2015
NYT VR app set to debut with new VR documentary from Vrse, "The Displaced"

Those of you born in the 90’s or earlier may remember being a kid and excitedly checking the Sunday paper, hoping that it would potentially bring a small cardboard box containing a sample of a delicious sugary cereal, or some other type of treat.  Those samples were great, but what the New York Times is about to do is much more awesome.

Google and the New York Times have partnered up to pair Google Cardboards with a special Sunday edition of the New York Times Magazine which will debut the new NYT VR app. The magazine, coming during the weekend of Nov. 7-8, will ship to over a million home subscribers. Online subscribers to Times Insider and “a selection” of Times digital subscribers will receive promo codes redeemable for Cardboards as well. The magazine will contain step-by-step instructions to walk first timers through the process, from assembling the Cardboard to downloading the necessary apps.

The New York Times VR app, created in conjunction with IM360.

The New York Times VR app, created in conjunction with IM360.

The NYT VR app will debut with a brand new VR documentary titled “The Displaced,” which was created in collaboration with Chris Milk’s VR content company, Vrse.

Currently there are over 30 million children around the world who have lost their homes due to either war or persecution. In “The Displaced” you will be able to experience the lives of three of those children from South Sudan, eastern Ukraine and Syria, providing a uniquely empathetic perspective on the crisis at hand.

In an exclusive interview with UploadVR, Jake Silverstein, The New York Times Magazine‘s Editor in Chief, said he wants viewers “to be able to connect with the children who are at the heart of the story we’re trying to tell and feel as if they could be in the same room with them and really kind of understand of what they’ve been going through.”

Oleg, 11, walks through his old classroom in his former school in Nikishino, which was destroyed by the east Ukraine war, September 27, 2015, in DNR territory.  [Photograph by Lynsey Addario for the New York Times]

Oleg, 11, walks through his old classroom in his former school in Nikishino, which was destroyed by the east Ukraine war, September 27, 2015, in DNR territory. [Photograph by Lynsey Addario for the New York Times]

“This is a crisis in which the worst things.. are happening where most of our readers are not able to go to,” he says, “and so that crisis can seem remote and far away and distant and we want to make it seem immediate and close and urgent.” Virtual reality allows them to bring that crisis closer to home and make it more impactful. Like a Sara McLachlan commercial on steroids, it becomes hard to ignore the crisis when it is literally staring you in the face.

Virtual reality is “a useful tool when you want to try to tell a story about a place that is remote and inaccessible,” says Silverstein. “Also, it’s a really useful tool when you’re telling a story where you want your reader or your viewer to have an empathic connection with the subjects of the story. The refugee crisis kind of checks both of those boxes.”

“The Displaced,” is The New York Times’ second collaboration with Vrse. Earlier this year the two collaborated to create a feature entitled “Walking in New York.” The film was created in coordination with JR, a French artist famous for his massive photographs of urban environments. The virtual reality piece told the story behind the Magazine’s cover, which featured a massive installation art project in the shadow of the iconic Flatiron Building. It is currently available to download on iOS and Android through the Vrse app.

JR's cover for The New York Times Magazine's "Walking New York" edition.

JR’s cover for The New York Times Magazine’s “Walking New York” edition.

“The Displaced” and “Walking New York” are only the publication’s first efforts in the new medium. According to Silverstein, the New York Times intends to produce another new immersive report in December, followed by a fourth piece coming in Q1/early Q2 of 2016. From there the company intends to use what they have learned to determine the publishing schedule going forward.

The New York Times isn’t the first group to explore virtual reality’s potential for journalism. Nonny de la Peña, who many have called “The Godmother of VR,” and her company the Emblematic Group (formally Immersive Journalism) have been exploring the medium for years with pieces like Project Syria, One Dark Nightand Hunger LAAdditionally, just last month ABC News announced that they would be working with Jaunt to release a 360º report on the people, history and art of Damascus in Syria.

“We know that radio changed newspaper, and we know that television broadcast changed radio,” says de la Peña, “I think that virtual reality is going to be the same sort of thing.”

In a recent TED talk titled “How virtual reality can be the ultimate empathy machine,” Chris Milk highlighted how VR can bring us closer to the stories we tell and bring the people within them to life, changing the way the audience relates with the film. Having experienced a number of these types of experiences myself I can say the amount of connection you feel with the subjects of these stories is incredibly impactful.

One experience that left a particularly lasting impression on me was Specular Theory‘s Perspectives; Chapter I: The Party. In the film you experience both the male and female perspective of a date rape at a college party. Going through it I watched, horrified, as I climbed on top of the nearly passed out body of a girl and then later seeing the same scene from her perspective. I left the experience shaken by what I had just done. I felt every ounce of the girl’s pain and betrayal as the cold soul I had embodied disappeared down the staircase after the deed was done. That is the kind of powerful experience that could only have been enabled by virtual reality, and the kind of experience that could truly impact many people’s perspectives on such a sensitive and important issue.

A scene from the male’s perspective during Specular Theory’s Perspectives; Chapter I: The Party

With VR’s great power comes great responsibility, and it will be up to the next generation of content creators to help define what those ethical responsibilities will be.

“Innately, you’re going to end up disrupting the scene that you’re trying to document more than in traditional video journalism,” says Silverstein. “Ethically, that raises questions for journalists: how do you disclose that, how do you limit your disruption, and how do you make sure your presence doesn’t’ change or alter reality? That’s going to be a really interesting aspect of VR journalism.”

In addition to adding credibility to immersive journalism the joint effort by Google and The New York Times to distribute Cardboards to subscribers could be important for VR overall.

“I think it’ll have a big impact on the overall rollout of VR,” says Silverstein, “In part because… we have a lot of people in [our] audience that may have heard of virtual reality but probably haven’t experienced it yet.”

One of the biggest obstacles that VR will have to face as it approaches mass adoption is that really needs to be seen to be understood. You can explain until you’re blue in the face what it is like to put on a headset and enter into a virtual world but until that other person has done it themselves it seems strange and foreign, especially to the older generations. The New York Times’ readership is incredibly diverse, ranking highest among major news outlets in the youth readership with 32% of its audience between the ages of 18 and 29, and another third over the age of 50. This represents a broad range of over a million people who will get a chance to see VR, quite possibly for the first time ever.

Beyond introducing a broad and influential new audience to VR, Silverstein hopes it will help expand people’s perspectives on what VR can do. “The majority of people still see it as a gaming platform,” he says, “so seeing it used in a really powerful and kind of classic journalistic sense is interesting, it will really open people’s eyes.”

Despite the difference in the quality of the experience between a Cardboard and higher end experiences like that on the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, this is more than a small win for the industry as it approaches its launch into the consumer sphere. Google Cardboard an effective tool for conveying a small taste of what VR is, it isn’t the ideal first impression but it is scalable enough for it to reach a broad audience and introduce them to the medium.

NYT VR will be coming to iOS and Android. There are no plans at this time to bring the platform to desktop VR hardware, though there will be versions of the films released that will be viewable in a desktop format or on a smartphone without a Cardboard viewer.

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