I just tested The New York Times virtual reality app. In a refreshing change, the test was more about expression than technology. The experience says more about the future of virtual reality than any technical review.
The app uses Google Cardboard, which the Times sent to my doorstep free of charge for being an online subscriber. Thus I leaned down to pick up something sent by the Times that was not a newspaper, but a small and light box. Inside the box was another box, shaped as one of those old-time slide viewers that you held to the eyes. I turned it into a virtual reality visor by placing an iPhone inside it.
The iPhone was running the NYTVR app, also available for Android. A very simple app, it offers a series of videos, each complementing a Times feature story. I picked one about human flight. After telling the app that I was using Cardboard, I looked into the thing to a scene of a busy Manhattan street by night as I was lifted from the ground.
Unlike with any other video, though, I was able to control the camera angle by moving my head. Look down and see the receding street. Look to the sides and see the buildings rushing by. Look up and see the moon as I flew up through the clouds. Around me, a series of human figures were floating in the breeze: a man on a bicycle, a woman in a silk gown, a ballet dancer practicing his moves.
How do you direct a video like this? The answer: audio clues. I heard a noise to my left and when I turned, I saw someone jumping through a window towards me, shards of glass flying by my ears. This must be the reason why the app recommended that I used headphones. I didn’t, but the sound made me turn my head anyway.
At this point I lost the new toy to my wife and daughter. As I watched them spin in place while looking up and down, I realized the director was guiding us through the story by gently inviting us to look at certain parts of it. In other words, more than directing a video, the Times was directing our attention. Just like a news story, but as they say in the promo for their virtual reality app, from the inside.
I have to say I was hooked by the simplicity and power of the new medium as the Times is using it. It might still be early to tell if virtual reality will be more than a curiosity, but the Times is showing their subscribers great respect with their VR app, and I respect them right back for that.
A promising indication of this app’s potential is that my teenage daughter installed it on her phone and borrowed the Cardboard to show to her friends. “They loved it”, she said when she got back. In case you don’t have a 17-year old at home, you should know that she has never taken up on my app suggestions, let alone read any of the newspaper articles I sent her over the years. The Times might have just gotten closer to a new generation of subscribers.