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.