As the media world undergoes almost unprecedented disruption, The New York Times has been exploring new ways of creating and delivering its digital journalism, and now it says it wants to do so in three dimensions—but as far away from print as you can possibly get. On Tuesday morning, the company announced a partnership with Google (GOOG) that will send a million of its readers free virtual reality headsets, on which they can watch VR films that the Times has made.
It’s an ambitious move by a media entity known for its words and images, but not necessarily for being at the forefront of movie making. If the rise of new media players such as Snapchat and Periscope have taught us anything, however, it is that all bets are off when it comes to the future of media, and that being a giant in one medium is no longer enough. And that’s especially true when that medium is declining rapidly in popularity—both with readers and with advertisers.
According to a news release from the company, more than a million New York Times home delivery subscribers will be getting a Google Cardboard VR viewer free with their copy of the Times on the weekend of November 7th. In addition to that, members of the Times Insider loyalty program and an unspecified number of digital subscribers will get promotional codes via email that they can redeem for a Google Cardboard viewer.
Unlike more expensive VR headsets like the Oculus Rift, which look like scuba diving masks and incorporate VR screens, the Google Cardboard device is simply a piece of cardboard that turns any smartphone into a virtual reality headset. The device was launched in 2014 at Google’s I/O conference and was invented by two Google engineers in Paris during their spare time.
A Google employee presents a Google Cardboard virtual reality headset for android smartphones during a Google promotion event at the City of Fashion and Design (Cite de la mode et du design) in Paris on November 4, 2014.Photograph by Thomas Samson — AFP/Getty Images
The first VR film that the Times will be offering its readers was created by New York Times magazine in collaboration with Chris Milk, founder of the virtual reality film company Vrse. Entitled “The Displaced,” it looks at the experience of children whose lives have been uprooted by war. New York Times magazine editor Jake Silverstein said that the film brings viewers into daily lives of three children from South Sudan, eastern Ukraine and Syria.
Technically, what the Times is offering isn’t true “virtual reality” but 360-degree video, or what some call “immersive” video. Virtual reality usually involves computer-generated imagery that simulates a real-world event, or video that allows the viewer to move around and change their viewpoint, while “augmented reality” superimposes virtual objects or events on real-world imagery.
“The power of VR is that it gives the viewer a unique sense of empathic connection to people and events,” Silverstein said in a prepared statement. “In the context of international reporting and conflict reporting, where our readers rely on us to bring them news and stories from remote and inaccessible places, this has huge potential.”
As part of the project, the Times developed a VR app in collaboration with the virtual reality studio IM360 that will be free and available for download in both the Google Play and iOS App Stores beginning November 5. A version of the film will also be available in 2-D on the Times website, and users will be able to find the videos on the Times YouTube channel.
In addition to the child refugee film, the Times says it will also be releasing a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the magazine’s “Walking New York” cover image, as well as a third unspecified film coming in December. And the company is also working with sponsors General Electric (GE) and MINI, which are offering their own VR films as part of the project. GE’s film was created by the Times’s in-house content marketing agency, T Brand Studio, in conjunction with a virtual reality company called Framestore.
A number of filmmakers and journalists such as Nonny de la Pena have been exploring what VR can do for journalism, with projects that look at news events like the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and allow viewers to walk through a re-enactment of the event. Whether this becomes a mainstream activity, however—and whether publishers like The New York Times can translate their audience reach from print to this new medium—is still an open question. If nothing else, it shows a willingness to experiment on the part of the Times that is refreshing from such a traditional media entity.