The Displaced: VR storytelling by the New York Times

November 2015

The New York Times launched its NYT VR app for Android and iOS last week – if you haven’t tried it yet I’d recommend to do so. It’s definitely worth the time despite some hurdles and limitations. A few thoughts and observations after watching “The Displaced”, the first immersive story published on NYT VR:

“The Displaced” is a linear experience and I’d argue this was a good decision. There’s much to discover and digest along the story path – even in linear form it is challenging to always follow visuals, sound and text in a 360 degree environment. (I noticed I wanted to see the VR movie again to check if there were aspects I missed because I looked in different directions before.) I’m hearing the argument for non-linear storytelling again and again but in most cases I’m not sure it actually helps to increase impact – the most important currency. (I’m not saying non-linear is a bad thing. I just assume that in many cases people speak for it because it’s a lovely challenge and they can’t wait to play with the possibilities.)

There are a few moments when I felt as close to the action as I’ve rarely felt before in a story. Standing on a field watching food being dropped above me by an airplane; joining a refugee child on a boat in the swamps of South Sudan; looking down from the roof of a heavily damaged school building in eastern Ukraine. It’s a glimpse of what will be possible in storytelling – making people truly™ feel what it’s like to be on the ground.

This strength of VR is also a challenge for the makers. Looking at the action from a distance doesn’t work in VR. Only being there and positioning oneself in the very middle of the action generates great VR footage. It’s so easy to write this down in a blog post but quite tricky and cumbersome to achieve in real life reporting.

VR is unforgiving when it comes to visuals. Average, repetitive footage has a stronger effect than in other media and there’s no way to compensate for it. (Check the Times Magazine VR story “Walking in New York” that comes as an add-on in NYT VR – it’s a mildly sedative experience until the moped scene starts at 4:08, followed by spectacular helicopter footage looking down an Manhattan.)

Sound design, often neglected, is an important part of a VR story. The subtle background music of “The Displaced” supports the overall mood driven by the visuals – both work together pretty well.

The one thing that didn’t work for me at all were the text inserts. I constantly lost track of them while looking around watching the action. In a story like “The Displaced” that’s a bit of a problem because the subtitles are the only way to understand what the protagonists say.

Watching a VR story in Cardboard is exhausting – I felt my neck hurt after a few minutes from turning around constantly. Would I want to watch a VR story that is much longer than the eleven minutes of “The Displaced”? Probably not.

The hurdles to experience a VR story like the “The Displaced” are immense. First, a decent smartphone is needed (Android or iOS). Then the app has to be installed and a voluminous 329 MB download must be finished before the presentation can be started looking through a Cardboard VR viewer. Don’t expect noteworthy reach for your VR stories for the time being. This will probably change one day, but for the foreseeable future it’s a fascinating niche venture.

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Update:”The Displaced” has triggered a debate about VR production ethics. Worth reading: “The tricky terrain of virtual reality” by Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor of the New York Times, and “What we talk about when we talk about virtual reality” by NPR’s Senior VP of News, Mike Oreskes.