Earlier this month a new tool in the evolution of digital journalism arrived in the homes of 1 million New York Times subscribers in the form of a cardboard box.
The unassuming package contained a pre-assembled Google Cardboard set, a cheap and cheerful virtual reality viewer that, when combined with a smartphone and the NYT VR app, allowed readers to watch The Displaced, an 11-minute film about refugee children, in immersive, 360-degree video.
“The box itself seems destined to be remembered with a disbelieving laugh, like the shoe-size mobile phones in a Seinfeld rerun,” the Times’s public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote. “But at the moment, this is new.”
“New”? Well, not exactly. Virtual reality, as anyone who pulled on a Sega VR headset back in the 90s will know, has been around for decades. Yet recently the price of VR equipment has plummeted – you can buy a Google Cardboard set for less than £10 – and several of the world’s largest tech companies are investing heavily in VR, including Facebook and Google.
“Virtual reality appears to be on the cusp of mainstream adoption,” reads the introduction to a new report from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, VR production company Secret Location and PBS’s Frontline show, who all collaborated on Frontline’s first VR documentary, Ebola Outbreak: A Virtual Journey. “For journalists, the combination of immersive video capture and dissemination via mobile VR players is particularly exciting,” the report continues. “It promises to bring audiences closer to a story than any previous platform.”
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