Skip to story A scene from "Walking New York"—a VR experience on the creation of the latest New York Times Magazine cover. courtesy VRSE
Street artists normally work in the shadows. But on April 11 French artist JR threw up a new stunning piece right in the heart of Manhattan in broad daylight. His handiwork was removed within 24 hours, which means like many of the magical moments that happen in New York City, you probably missed it. But hey, that’s okay—you can relive it in virtual reality.
JR’s piece—a 150-foot-tall black-white-grey image of a 20-year-old Azerbaijani immigrant named Elmar Aliyev pasted onto the sidewalk in front of the Flatiron Building—was created for the cover of Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. The publication commissioned the artist to create the piece, as well as photograph it from a helicopter’s-eye-view. The magazine captured the entire enterprise for a VR experience it’s releasing today at its NewFronts presentation.
“Quite apart from the virtual reality part of it, this cover was wildly ambitious and kind of insane,” says Times Magazine editor in chief Jake Silverstein. “We took a photograph, pasted it on the ground, flew up in a helicopter, and took a picture of it. Part of me thought, ‘Nobody’s going to believe that we did that.’ They’re going to think it’s Photoshop or something. It was a wonderful opportunity to use VR to transport a reader not to a place that’s unattainable—because this is just right in the middle of Midtown Manhattan—but to a time, a time that is now lost.”The cover of the New York Times Magazine on Sunday. courtesy New York Times Magazine
If you want to watch “Walking New York” yourself, and have Google Cardboard or another mobile VR solution, you can access it through the app for VRSE, the outfit that produced the video. The experience won’t reach the millions of people that the Times does, but being backed by the paper of record is a huge step for what is still a medium in its infancy.
In the last two years, VR has been touted as the future of a lot of things: videogames, filmmaking, gender-swapping. Now, the Times Magazine is showing what it can do for journalism. It’s a small step, sure, but Silverstein says it’s also a test case for what’s possible when it comes to actually bringing people into news stories. “We’ve been excited to try to figure that out,” he adds. “You can imagine the ways in which VR can really amplify some of the work we do—particularly with international reporting.”
A lot of the questions about the importance of VR for journalism go back to empathy—the current buzzword in VR filmmaking. Taking a page from Roger Ebert’s assertion that a movie is an “empathy machine,” people excited about VR’s storytelling potential like to point out that nothing will make a person more empathetic to a protagonist than virtually living in their world. So when that protagonist is actually a resident of a war-torn country, say, or protester in the streets, that potential for empathy is quite sizable. Even Oculus VR Palmer Luckey alluded to this just last week, telling WIRED “because virtual reality has the ability to put you in places in a much more real way, it has the potential to be a much better canvas.”
Chris Milk gets this. Not only is his company VRSE the one that the Times Magazine tapped to make the VR experience for its cover—the experience will also be released on his VRSE app—he’s done this before. Earlier this year he released a collaboration with Vice and director Spike Jonze that allowed viewers to experience the Millions March in New York in late 2014. Around the same time he also released a piece he did with the United Nations called “Clouds Over Sidra,” which followed a 12-year-old Syrian girl’s life at a refugee camp in Jordan.
“VR is such a fascinating medium for journalism because two huge factors of VR are the feeling of transporting you to some place,” Milk says, “and secondarily, but just as importantly, connecting you to the people inside of that place.”
Not that we can start sending out journalists with VR filming rigs tomorrow. For one, not everyone has the eight-custom-cameras-and-binaural-microphones rigs that Milk uses. (His company VRSE.tools is working on that, though.) There’s also a huge learning curve for those who want to know how to make VR (obvi), and the audience is still limited. (“One of the challenges of VR is that the delivery of it to a user can be challenging and there are so many friction points there,” Silverstein says.) Then there’s the fact that news and journalism moves a lot faster than VR production. “The timeline on this has been a little bit insane,” Milk says somewhat ruefully.
But former Newsweek reporter Nonny de la Peña is already using VR to show reconstructions of the Trayvon Martin shooting and has said the platform “will be a common part of how journalists make stories in the future.” The Columbia Journalism Review even calls VR “the next frontier” for newsrooms that “need to consider telling stories in a different way.”
Just as young people in journalism school five years ago learned that Twitter was important to reporting, soon enough they might be learning how to film with a 360-degree camera. The same goes for documentary filmmakers. “As these younger journalists are coming out of J-school they’re all learning how to use every single way of telling and reporting stories,” says Rebecca Howard, the Times’ head of video. “They are coming out excited to get their hands on any way they can to tell stories and technologies to do it.”
But that’s the future. For right now it’s about what we can do with the tools we have. And it’s not so bad. Watching the VR experience for the Times Magazine cover is cool not just because it’s beautiful and arty, but also because it takes you up in a helicopter and hangs you out a window of the Flatiron Building itself. It’s short, sweet, and hypnotic. But what does JR think of his work going virtual?
“It’s magic,” he says. “I try to use virtual worlds to bring people into action in the real world. I hope that this film will show ‘Whoa, the fun part of that image is making the image.’ Hopefully we can get people to make their own.”
To put it another way, VR is great—especially when it gets you out into the world around you.