So what did you think about the New York Times’ recent foray into the world of virtual reality?
If you happen to be a subscriber to the Times, or at least the weekend edition of the Times, you would have had to be brain dead to miss the Times’ headlong plunge into virtual reality on Sunday, November 8. The great event was preceded by an eight-page advertisement, heralding the imminent arrival of the Sunday magazine with its companion VR reader. “Every day we bring the world to our readers. On November 8, we bring the readers to the world.” And that weekend the plastic bag carrying the dozen or so sections of the Times included a prominent bulge — a six by three by two-inch cardboard box that would unfold into a virtual reality viewer.
The viewer promises to bring me to a video that will complement that week’s cover story on “The Displaced,” the stories of three of the some 30 million children who have been driven from their homes by various wars.
Feeling as if I were trying out for the bomb squad, I carefully opened the package, noted the directions for folding it into its proper position, and determined that using it would require both a smart phone and the downloading of a computer application. Having been burned by new technology more than once in my life, I at that point gingerly put the viewer aside and decided to wait another week or so for Thanksgiving, when both my sons would be home — armed with smart phones and tech cred.
Meantime I sat back and, with eyebrow raised, read the letter from editor Jake Silverstein in the November 8 virtual reality issue:
“One hundred nineteen years ago, the inaugural issue of this magazine published the first photographs ever to appear in the New York Times, beginning on the cover with three small halftone images of the former presidential candidates Stephen Douglas, John Bell and John Breckinridge. Elsewhere in the magazine, readers found images of X-rays, then a nascent technology, showing a hand and a foot. Now, more than 6,000 Sundays later, the magazine is proud to introduce another visual innovation: In conjunction with this week’s cover story on the global refugee crisis, we are unveiling the New York Times’s first contribution to the new field of virtual-reality journalism.
“Until now, VR has been seen mostly as a revolutionary new platform for video games, but it has the potential to transform journalism as well.”
We shall see, I thought.
Thanksgiving finally arrived, along with my technical support team. Sure enough, my three or four-year-old smart phone was incompatible with the software application. My older son, armed with a state-of-the-art iPhone, downloaded the application, though only after a certain amount of fussing. Silverstein, in his editor’s letter, did warn that “watching your first VR film takes a little bit of effort, but the payoff is well worth it. First, you’ll have to get our new NYT VR app, available free in the App Store and Google Play. Then you’ll have to download the film itself, which may take a few minutes, depending on your connection speed.”
Once all the system’s demands were met, we watched. Sure enough, as advertised, the virtual reality presentation put you in the middle of the action being reported. As cargo planes dropped parachutes laden with food into the middle of a refugee camp, the view of the scene changed as you changed the position of your head: look behind you and you saw what was behind you. Look up and you saw the scene unfold from above.
The process drew mixed reviews at my house, but my eyebrow remained raised. One scene showed a pickup truck filled with refugee children heading down a road. If I chose to look to the left or the right or to the rear, would I miss a part of the action that was really important? In a conventional documentary an experienced film crew and reporter would make that determination for you, and edit their film so you saw what would best tell the story.
But, the VR proponents would ask, wouldn’t it be just as valuable to experience the scene as it really unfolded, caught up in the middle of it instead of being a bystander and depending on a reporter and camera person to shape the scene? Maybe, but that’s not what virtual reality really (if I can use that word) provides.
As Silverstein, the Times magazine editor, continued:
“Filming in VR also requires some effort. Rather than using one camera, a VR rig uses many, clustered together and pointing in all directions. The footage from this contraption is reconciled in post-production to create a wraparound environment, with the viewer positioned at the center, like a sun within a solar system. To stay out of the shot, the filmmaker has to set up his camera rig, begin recording, and then run and hide, peering from behind a haystack or a trash bin and hoping that the action unfolds the way he imagined. For this reason, VR usually involves more coordination between filmmaker and subject than in traditional video journalism. A subject may be asked to repeat an action, or wait until the filmmaker is out of sight to complete a task.”
For real? At least to me, the result does not seem to be worth the effort. But my cardboard viewer remains on hand, and perhaps I will put it to another test this Sunday, December 13, when the Times offers another VR experience: “Take Flight,” which promises to feature the year’s best actors, as selected by the Times’s chief film critic, A.O. Scott, and directed by Daniel Askill, whose credits include short films, photography, video, and sculpture. The full page ad for this journalistic event shows the actor Michael Fassbender leaping off the page. Virtually, of course.
The other thing that remains on hand is that old-fashioned article and photo spread about the refugee children that takes up some 30 pages in the November 8 issue. It’s still unread.