The latest special issue of the NYT Magazine (November 8) is devoted to the stories of three of the estimated 30m children worldwide who have been displaced from their homes by war.
The 30-page section follows Oleg (below left), who lives in eastern Ukraine; Chuol (below middle), aged nine, the youngest of the three, who tells of how he was forced to flee to the swamps of South Sudan; and Hana (above – shot by Lynsey Addario – and below right), a Syrian refugee in Lebanon.
In addition to the photo stories in the printed edition, the NYT Magazine collaborated with Vrse.works to create an 11-minute 3D documentary film, The Displaced, which can be viewed for free on the NYT VR app. The film is co-directed by The Times’ Ben C Solomon and Vrse.works’ Imraan Ismail and is, says the magazine, the first time it has used VR in this way.
To access the VR content, readers must first download the NYT VR app (iPhone or Android) and the film itself; then place their smartphone in the Google cardboard viewer supplied (shown below, as it arrived).
In the film, as each of the children talk through their experiences, the footage responds to the viewer’s movements: you can move left or right, look up or down, revealing more and more within a particular scene. At first it’s a bit unnerving, as if you’re really present in that particular moment.
But once the phone is locked into place in the viewer and you get used to it, the effect begins to feel more natural – and it becomes easier to pay attention to the story and to explore the new environment you find yourself in.
There are a few niggles, however. While the app itself is 21mb, once the film has been downloaded, it grows in size to over 340mb. Both app and film can easily be removed, but when my phone battery died, I charged it back up and the film was no longer there.
The success of the experience also wholly depends on a rather arbitrary thing – how the phone sits in the cardboard viewer. Once you find the sweet spot and the phone is held in place, it works brilliantly. But this is tricky to do, particularly as there’s no real indication as to where exactly to place the screen in front of the lenses. (On the cardboard viewer, the instructions for how to fit your phone differ from those in the animation which showcases the project on the NYT site – the latter does a better job of showing how to position it on the viewer.)
That said, when the film aligns and the VR comes tumbling out, there is something extremely compelling about watching the stories from the magazine emerge in 3D. Equally, having complete control over where and what to look at is also a thrilling advantage. Coupled with great sound, this is certainly getting near to true, undistracted immersion.
At the moment, the VR works very well as a companion piece to the quality NYT journalism both in print and online. Sometime in the near future, it might just stand alone on equal terms with those platforms as a way of truly experiencing a story.
That the project made use of the New York Times’ loyal print following to showcase accessible VR also points to the possibility of more collaborations in the future – of which, we’re assured by the NYT, there will be many.
The project has been made with involvement from Mini and GE – both have films to view in the VR app – and, of course, Google who make the cardboard viewers which normally retail from $19.95. An animation by Christoph Niemann and HunterGather introduces the NYT VR project here. Readers can also access an online version of the film, here – also made with Vrse.works, this version comes as a 360 degree ‘click and drag’ experience, which takes a little while to get the hang of as the scrolling view is very sensitive.
Directors: Imraan Ismail, Ben C. Solomon. Creative Directors: Chris Milk, Jake Silverstein. Producers: Jenna Pirog, Samantha Storr. Executive Producers: Kathy Ryan, Patrick Milling Smith, Andy Wright. Design Director: Gail Bichler. Cinematographer: Imraan Ismail. Photographer (print edition): Lynsey Addario. Design (print edition): Matt Willey