I like getting presents. That’s one reason I looked forward to opening the mysterious cardboard package that arrived with my New York Times two weeks ago.
By Allen Clark
I like getting presents. That’s one reason I looked forward to opening the mysterious cardboard package that arrived with my New York Times two weeks ago. It contained something reminiscent of a stereoscope, created by Oliver Wendell Holmes in the 1860s.
I’m pretty certain most of us have used 3-D glasses at the movies. Or tried those plastic Viewmasters with the circle inserts that you rotate with a clicker. But you may not be familiar with Holmes’ creation. It was a viewing device you held on a wooden handle and peered under a tiny arched “roof” through two prismatic lenses at special “stereo cards” on an attached wooden stand. Each card had two separate but equal images side-by-side that stimulated a view by each eye as if the two photos were in the same location. Your brain fused the two and accepted them as a view of one unified 3-D object.
Well, times they are a-changing. And so, apparently, is The Times. This “gift” was the Times’ way of introducing me to a new way of getting the news. The technical name is VR – Virtual Reality. The term and the technology development have been around for over 60 years. The best layman’s definition I’ve seen is: “It’s an experience that can take you from where you are currently to another place, simply by putting something in front of your eyes that tricks your brain into nearly ‘feeling’ it.”
The Times VR gizmo has a retail value of $25 (or $17.50 if you order another one from The Times), but online I was amazed to find well over a dozen competing manufacturers, including a $120 unit from Zeiss (not cardboard). Some models, complete with headphones, run $200 or so. Instead of a card or picture wheel, this time you insert a smart phone, download the Times’ new app, hook up some headphones, and get ready for what The Times calls an “experience.”
The VR technology offers you full 360-degree viewing. You can swivel your neck as far left and right as you want, as well as up and down, and the camera takes you in those directions pretty much seamlessly – so much so, in fact, you can lose the main focus of the offering, although you can still hear any conversation or narrative going on. It’s as if you were at a lecture but opted to face away from the podium. One note: it might have been good if The Times had included some of those airplane bags in the seat pockets on board; or maybe just have a wastebasket near by. If you’re too enthusiastic in your VR experience, you can get pretty dizzy and worse. I found doing it in a swivel desk chair a lot smoother.
According to the tech press, VR is here to stay; odds are that most of you reading this article will be using the new technology very soon. According to one trade report, “If history is any indicator, Virtual Reality (will) reach a critical mass three times faster than the Internet.” Their prediction: within 18 months, there’ll be 50 million VR users worldwide. Of course, that usage will be for much more than just news, like gaming, travelogues, etc. But The Times obviously hopes to build a loyal, what used to be called reader, base via VR. Instead of “readers,” the descriptor will be “viewers” or, perish the thought, “experiencers.”
This raises a cultural question. What effect does viewing (which admittedly involves some reading in the form of captions, translations, etc. but is mostly looking and listening) have on understanding, involvement and the like? The same question comes up when assessing the difference between old-fashioned books and audio renderings. As far as news goes, I believe reading provides broader information, more participation from the reader and therefore a fuller experience. Travelogues? That’s a different matter, and if I can visit Hawaii with the kind of amazing experience this introduction to VR gave me, then VR certainly has a future.
So, what is The Times hoping for? I think it’s clear that The Times is trying whatever it can do to staunch its decline in profits. Every year, the reduction in news stories and the growth in full-page “house” ads for NYT products, and trips, etc. run by The Times points that way.
So my final NYT-VR rating? It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.