When the Sunday New York Times showed up on my front porch yesterday morning, I was surprised to discover that there was a package with it — a free Google Cardboard device. I had heard of Google Cardboard before, but it wasn't until I tried it myself that I saw how neat it really is. Google Cardboard is an inexpensive box made of cardboard with two lenses in it. If you don't subscribe to the New York Times, Google has a website where you can buy one for around $20, or Google even gives you instructions to make your own.
Once you have the Google Cardboard hardware (if "hardware" is the right term to use for something made mostly of cardboard), you place your iPhone (or Android phone) in the Google Cardboard and run an app designed to work with Google Cardboard. The app displays two images on your screen which line up in front of the two lenses, and when viewed through Google Cardboard, everything looks like it is in 3D.
It's similar to the View-Master that you probably used as a kid, but with some big differences. First, you are looking at video, not still images. Second, as you move your head around, the iPhone senses your movement and adjusts the image accordingly. So you can look up to see what is above, look down to see what is below, or move around to see what is around you. The virtual reality videos are created using special 360° cameras.
Last week, in anticipation of giving out the free viewers to the over 1.1 million subscriber to the Times, the paper launched an app called NYT VR to provide you with content to view. The app is free and you can even use it without Google Cardboard; the app also lets you play the video in a non-Google Cardboard mode in which you move your iPhone to look around you. Try that out to get a sense of it, but keep in mind that the video is far more compelling when you are using Google Cardboard.
The initial content includes a compelling video called Displaced which lets you see and hear from three children who had to leave their homes because of conflict — 11 year old Oleg from the Ukraine, 9 year old Chuol from Sudan, and 12 year old Hana from Syria. As you would expect from The New York Times, the videos are compelling without the virtual reality, but when you watch the video in Google Cardboard, you truly feel like you are there. You can look around and see the destruction from war, and even look up to watch a plane from a relief organization drop food. The virtual reality is not just a gimmick; the video comes alive. I was much more moved than I would have been just watching a YouTube video with the same content.
Another video called Walking New York shows the making of a cover of the New York Times Magazine from earlier this year. The whole video is fascinating, but it is also worth it for a single scene in which the 360° camera is next to a helicopter and you get an amazing aerial view of Manhattan. Wow.
There a few other videos included with great content. You can also download the free Vrse app to see other VR content. (Vrse created the app for the Times.) I particularly enjoyed watching the Celebrity Jeopardy sketch from Saturday Night Live's recent 40th anniversary show. The sketch itself was funny (even though I had seen it before), but it was fascinating to turn my head away from the actors and see the cameramen, folks holding cue cards, audience, etc. Watching all of the activity that wasn't the focus of the main TV camera was even more interesting than the comedy sketch itself.
Some videos even feature 3D audio. There is a U2 video in the Vrse app where you are in the middle of the band and can hear what is to your left and right. It's a great way to experience a music video.
According to an article by Adi Robertson of The Verge, the Times will release more video next month and throughout 2016. Kudos to the Times for embracing this emerging technology and using it to tell more compelling stories. If you don't have Google Cardboard yourself, consider getting one so that you can follow along with me to experience the VR videos released by The New York Times in the coming months.