Two different news stories slipped under the radar yesterday. Both of them point towards virtual reality video making its mainstream debut.
First up is the New York Times, which unveiled its first foray into the world of virtual reality journalism in the form of the NYT VR app. Available on both iOS and Android, the new app uses the motion sensors in your phone to provide smooth, naturalistic panning and tilting around virtual reality scenes. When paired with a lo-fi cardboard headset like this one (NYT print subscribers will receive a free viewer with their paper on Sunday morning), the NYT VR app offers an immersive journalism experience like no other.
NYT's first official VR project, a documentary titled The Displaced about three refugee children from around the world, was produced in conjunction with Vrse, one of the few companies trailblazing in VR content production. In Jake Silverstein's article introducing the new VR experience, he talks about why virtual reality may provide a better journalism experience than either traditional photo or video ever could.
By breaking free from the rectangular editorial frame of a traditional documentary film, V.R. invests the viewer with an uncanny feeling of agency, a sense of being able to look around for yourself. Your living room or kitchen falls away. Turning this way and that, examining the sky or a cucumber or a lily pad, you begin to feel present in these vivid locations, a virtual witness to these children’s precarious lives.
Having played around in the NYT VR app for the past few hours, I can say with that it's a great experience. The Displaced is immensely fascinating to watch and explore, and the technology aspect of this is surprisingly good, even without a funky cardboard viewer. In just a few days, the free cardboard units will ship out to the masses who subscribe to the Times, and depending on how many of them take the initiative to download the app and watch the film, it could become one of the most widely viewed VR pieces in the technology's short history.
YouTube Enables VR
Video is no longer available: youtu.be/h-8UCEigYTI
The other announcement yesterday was that YouTube now supports VR uploading and viewing. Not to be confused with the 360-degree video support, which has been enabled since March of this year, the new announcement applies to YouTube's Android smartphone app, which now offers support for Google Cardboard. These open source cardboard viewers offer an inexpensive alternative to the bigger, significantly more expensive rigs like those from Oculus and Samsung, and they're built to work with just about any smartphone on the market.
The coolest thing about this announcement is that you can actually use the Google Cardboard option on any video on YouTube, not just the VR ones. Though it's technically not VR, it could be a way to make the experience of watching videos on your phone a bit more immersive and enjoyable. I, for one, have never liked watching videos (and certainly not movies) on my phone.
YouTube also released a slew of new content to accompany the announcement.
It's hard to say what the significance of these two announcements will be in the grand scheme of things. Of course, tech-minded folks will probably hop on board and give virtual reality content a shot. However, it's hard to say whether the masses are ready for, or if they even want, virtual reality content that they have to view through a cardboard viewer.