Virtual Reality and the Mainstream Media
BY Victoria Spencer — October 18, 2021

The weekend of November 7, The New York Times will include Google Cardboard virtual reality headsets in roughly a million issues of its Sunday paper. The company will also send another 300,000 Cardboards to select digital subscribers. In a seminal moment in journalism and tech, by Monday morning 1.3 million people all over the world will have access to virtual reality—many for the first time.

The Times isn’t the first big media company to try to usher VR into the mainstream. Earlier this month, CNN live streamed the Democratic presidential debate in virtual reality. Viewer responses were mixed. The debate was the most watched ever—with more than 15 million viewers—but its VR viewership was tiny and, often, unsatisfied with the experience. Headsets overheated, batteries died, and the video stream flickered in and out.

WIRED reporter David Pierce summarizes the experience: “The most obvious takeaway from the debate is virtual reality just isn’t good enough yet.”

Beyond technological glitches, the debate live stream drew attention to another of VR’s downfalls: how isolating it can be. To experience VR, viewers must wear headsets that shield them from the world around them. Being engaged in a virtual environment can be a wonderful escape, but, as Mashable’s Jason Abbruzzese commented while watching the debate: “I’m kind of lonely. I can faintly hear my coworkers cracking jokes in the background, and I already miss my Twitter feed. There’s no interactivity on this thing.”

The Democratic debates aren’t just about the passive absorption of information but the discussions around this information: swapping opinions and insights, either online or in person. In addition to a glitchy stream and uncomfortable gear, CNN’s experiment in VR failed because it removed the viewer from a community that would help them process what they were watching.

Next month, the Times hopes its subscribers will use their new Cardboard headsets to watch a VR documentary, The Displaced, which will be released on November 5. The film centers on three children caught in the middle of the refugee crisis. Considering the film’s lineup of collaborators—acclaimed VR production company Vrse, music video director Chris Milk, and the Times’s own Pulitzer Prize–winning videographer Ben Solomon—the project promises to be well crafted and insightful. Considering CNN’s lack of success with the format, though, this might not be enough to encourage widespread appeal.

The Displaced has the potential to foster increased empathy for the plight of child refugees among readers, but it also might isolate viewers in a way that could stop them from truly absorbing the information onscreen. Doubtless, viewers who have never experienced VR before will be astonished by the technology—it is amazing to experience—but whether they will feel motivated to usher the issue out of the VR space and into real-world communities is yet to be seen.

The CNN experiment triggered many insights into the ways VR can be used most meaningfully, and many came to the conclusion that live streaming the Democratic presidential debate is not one of them. Come November 7, The New York Times will likely prompt even more commentary on how to best utilize this new technology. VR can be an invaluable storytelling tool. How to make it work in the context of the real world—and an audience used to having their Twitter feeds always at their fingertips—seems a little harder to pinpoint.