Did the New York Times just make virtual reality mainstream, or jump the shark?

The Gray Lady packages a Google Cardboard VR device with the Sunday Newspaper.

Google Cardboard virtual reality New York Times giveaway
Credit: Fredric Paul

On Sunday morning, the venerable New York Times put virtual reality in the hands of more than 1 million people. The newspaper packaged a Google Cardboard virtual reality viewer with the Sunday paper for its print subscribers across the country.

For many of these people, the device, which uses a smartphone to supply the screen and processing power, may be their first direct experience with VR technology. So, did the device inspire users to embrace a dramatic new way to experience content that they will now go out of their way to repeat? Or will it prove so confusing, hard to use, and low quality that they'll dismiss all forms of VR as overhyped silliness for the foreseeable future?

The answer is probably somewhere in between. Or maybe, more accurately, a little of both.

VR to the rescue? 

On the plus side, it's pretty easy to follow the instructions to download the free New York Times VR app, and Google Cardboard comes pre-folded so even non-Origami masters should be able to figure out how to insert the phone. And the New York Times has put together a nice collection of stories in the app to show off the device's potential, including a long VR version of the paper's heart-wrenching feature on refugees displaced by foreign wars. Even the clips that appear to be native advertising for GE and MINI are fun to watch, though they could be labeled more clearly as sponsored.

But there are still plenty of gotchas to mar the experience. Most importantly, Google Cardboard just isn't a high-production-values experience. Many people see double images, text is super hard to read, and resolution is noticeably blocky for people accustomed to crisp images and videos on phone screens. Some people may have to reset their "zoom" settings to see the images properly, and that isn't clearly stated in the instructions.

Whats next for VR?

The Times' VR app is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn't go that far. There are only five VR videos in the app's initial gallery, and one of those is just a short clip from the longer Displaced feature.

Assuming Times Sunday subscribers try the device, the real test will be what they choose to do with it afterwards. Will they hold on to the device to see what else the New York Times comes up with for it? (The Times says it is "committed to VR storytelling")? Will they download the Google Cardboard app or visit YouTube 360 and explore other content? Will they like the experience enough to check out other, higher-quality VR technologies, like Facebook's Oculus Rift?

We should get more of a sense of that in the coming weeks, but I for one will be holding on to my Google Cardboard, and I've already downloaded some additional content. It's still a toy in many respects, but I think it's already a great option for certain kinds of non-text content, where moving through a virtual environment can convey more information and emotion than a standard photo or video. And I give the New York Times and Google credit for an innovative approach to spreading the VR gospel.

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