Virtual reality in reality: The NY Times app makes a difference

Offering a compelling and important news feature can turn the Google Cardboard VR viewer from a toy into a important aid to storytelling.

I've just experienced my first true virtual reality story. And it's impressive.

Let me be perfectly honest about this. I've tried out my share of VR headsets at CES and other tech trade shows -- and quite honestly, I wasn't impressed. To begin with, they were usually heavy and uncomfortable; I couldn't see using them for more than a few minutes, at most.

Second: They were expensive. Very expensive. Until recently, we were talking $500 minimum, and while that's come down in the last couple of years, I'd still think twice about buying something that was, in effect, a not-very-effective gaming tool.

Which brings me to my third point: Consistently, when somebody demo'd one of these for me, we'd be talking a first-person shooter game -- something that is incredibly popular among gamers (including quite a few friends), but not something that particular drew me to the technology.

So while other attendees would line up again and again to experience a few minutes of fast-moving action that appeared to take place all around them, I'd try it once, get "killed" in about 30 seconds, and then give up. I'd smile, the vendor would smile, and he'd go on to somebody else who would appreciate his tech much more.

So there I was -- until last night, when I tried the New York Times VR app.

This experiment has been a masterful piece of public relations. The newspaper announced that it had used VR to create an independent video feature about three displaced children in different parts of the world. You could view it on your phone via an iOS or Android app, either alone or, better yet, by using the Google Cardboard VR viewer -- which would be included in subscribers' Sunday papers and mailed to digital subscribers who had agreed to accept marketing emails.

If you haven't read about it yet, here's how it works: The cardboard viewer basically encloses your phone and provides a way for you to view the video without distractions and with a sense of being completely enclosed in the scene. Look down, look up, look around -- you're there. (In two dimensions, admittedly.)

(By the way, if you're a DIY sort of person, you can also create your own cardboard VR viewer; we've provided directions.)

Plenty of others have already chimed in on their own experiences trying out Google's viewer. There have been complaints about lack of focus, low resolution, and and problems with the format.

All of which is true. It took me a couple of minutes to find the "sweet spot" where I could view the video clearly, and because I was constantly moving my head, I had to keep readjusting it. The resolution wasn't the best, especially since I was using an original Moto X. While you could pause the video (awkwardly), if you accidentally stopped it, it was impossible to find your place; you had to start from the beginning. And because the format encouraged you to look around, and the subtitles were only in one or two specific places, it was easy to miss them -- and, as a result, lose the sense of what was being said.

Despite that, during the 11-minute video titled "The Displaced", I was completely enthralled. And it wasn't just the experience of spending 11 minutes being able to looking around at places and scenes in which I'd never been -- although that was a factor. It was because the story that the video was telling mattered to me; I wanted to know about these children and their lives, and the technology made them more real to me than print would have.

How much of a difference will this experiment make? It's hard to say at this point. Virtual reality is developing into a very useful technology for business and manufacturing. And companies like Microsoft are starting to announce upcoming VR entertainment tech (still mostly in development, though).

Which is all to the good. But if VR is also used to make us care about people in other parts of the world -- or about issues that we otherwise might wave away as not concerning us -- then perhaps it can prove to be an even more important technology than we've given it credit for.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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