Last November, every home print copy of The New York Times landed with an extra loud thump on the doorstep. In a bold move to usher in innovation, The Times planted 1.3 million cardboard boxes in the homes of its readers, but these weren’t ordinary cardboard boxes – they were virtual reality headsets.
The Google Cardboard virtual reality headsets, which are nothing more than cardboard and some Velcro used to hold a cellphone in place, have a pair of plastic lenses that transform the 2-D world of our phone screens to the illusion of an immersive 3-D environment.
Google and The Times’ choice to send out the headsets to over one million people marked a key development in the world of journalism: the start of the changing world of video news.
Last November’s introduction of virtual reality technology to the public represented a major leap in the virtual video realm, making the technology affordable and accessible to all. By downloading the NYT VR app on an iPhone or Android and placing a cellphone into the Google Cardboard headset, everyday people have the opportunity to experience some of the world’s most advanced forms of storytelling.
One thing that makes virtual reality videos different from ordinary videos is how virtual reality allows viewers to move their heads up, down, and around to get a full 360-degree experience, as if the viewer was physically present in the story that they were watching.
The Times decided to utilize this technology by promising viewers they would “put you at the center of stories that only we can tell,” according to the NYT VR app. Sticking to their promise, The Times offered viewers the chance to embed with Iraqi forces as they fight against ISIS, climb the spire of the World Trade Center, and set foot on the alien world of Pluto.
Regardless of the time and place that the NYT VR app takes its viewers, the app promises its audience that it will “bring you places you can’t normally go.”
While pen, paper, and an old-fashioned camera lens can do wonders in terms of transporting readers and viewers to alternate realities, virtual reality videos virtually transport users to alternate realities.
After The Times sent out the headsets, 600,000 subscribers downloaded the app, making it the company’s most successful app launch and branding the app as the leading mobile app for high quality virtual reality content.
This past November, The Times expanded on its video innovation mission by introducing its 360 Video Channel, a channel dedicated to sharing a new immersive video every day. These videos can be played on phones, tablets, and computers. No headset is required for viewing, which makes the virtual reality technology even more accessible to those who didn’t have a cardboard headset sent to them in the mail.
Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Tyler Hicks and reporter Ben Hubbard shot the first Daily 360 video, and it offers a glimpse into war-torn Yemen. Since the program’s launch, other videos have been published, featuring the Urban Shepherds of Nairobi, Election Day at The New York Times, and Goat Yoga.
The Times has made so much progress in terms of video storytelling over the past year that it’s hard to imagine what else they might have up their sleeves, but, knowing The Times, more great things are probably already on their way.