Confessions Of A Virtual Reality Evangelist

Confessions Of A Virtual Reality Evangelist
December 22, 2016

I am an evangelist for Virtual Reality who can’t stand to wear a VR headset for more than about 30 minutes.


I get dizzy, and my eyes hurt from the blurry view I see in my Samsung Gear VR goggles. It may be that my eyes have a non-standard focal point, but most people I share my Samsung Gear VR headset with seem to report the same blurriness. Sometimes I feel nausea when I am in a VR environment. I eventually feel the need to flee back to my real room.


Just now, I was playing a shooting game in AltspaceVR, which seems to be the Second Life of VR. I tried Second Life years ago and got bored with it like everyone else. AltspaceVR is more intense, because you appear to be inside a 360-degree world. When you turn your head, you are looking in a different direction.


I must have been in Altspace VR for more than a half hour this session, because when I slipped the headset off, it was a lot darker outside than when I left Cambridge, Mass., as the sun was setting on the shortest day of the year.

I gave a Virtual Reality demo at Boston Media Makers on December 4, 2016


Since I was moving around a lot in the shooter game, I had no idea what direction I was facing — toward my desk? toward the painting my mother did of Wigglesworth Hall at Harvard? Arriving back in the real world is jarring.


I heard the CEO of the New York Times Company, Mark Thompson, lay out a surprisingly proactive VR strategy for The Times at South By Southwest Interactive in March. At the time of his presentation, there had been more than 500,000 downloads of the NYT VR App.


Since then The Times has added a lot of compelling VR content.


Tonight I experienced about 20 videos from Daily 360a new part of The Times’s VR content introduced last month in partnership with Samsung. These are very brief — under three minutes, and some are under a minute. That’s all it takes to put you right in the middle of things.


With my second-gen Gear VR headset viewing my Galaxy S7 smartphone, I was able to let the Daily 360 videos arrive automatically, one starting moments after the previous one ended. The effect was mesmerizing. Even as I experienced VR overload I was reluctant to stop watching.

Daily 360 screenshot: Inside an abandoned migrants’ boat


I began patrolling the U.S-Mexican border with Arizona Border Recon, an armed group which some consider to be a militia. From there I found myself next to an abandoned wooden boat that might have carried hundreds of migrants from Africa to Italy. From inside the boat, I could look all around, up and down, and imagine myself crammed into the vessel on the Mediterranean, hoping to survive a desperate voyage.


From Italy, I next took a sneak peek at a new subway line being constructed beneath New York City, explored a reproduction of prehistoric art from the Lascaux Caves, experienced nearly unwatchable tragedy in a Venezuelan mental hospital, and caught air on a snowboard jump at Copper Mountain in Colorado.


Each Daily 360 video has a similar format. You can look in all directions, and in two places you will see text describing the scene, sometimes with a narrator. The text is, in effect, a very short news story. But it’s all you need, because you are filling in the reality of the scene by looking in any direction you choose with the headset.


For example, here is the entire text of the Daily 360 story titled “The Cramped Quarters of a Migrant Boat:”


LAMPEDUSA, ITALY These boats were used by migrants to cross the Mediterranean. Hundreds of people are sometimes crammed into spaces this small for the journey. Some boats capsize on the way, and thousands of migrants have drowned.


Thirty-seven words. But let me tell you, I doubt I will soon forget the feeling of being inside that abandoned boat. I looked out at sunlight through cracks between faded turquoise wood panels. I looked down at rusted pipes leading to a dead engine. From inside the boat, I could hear the muffled sound of traffic from the road near where the vessel had been left to rot.


I remember thinking in Austin that the CEO of The Times was going way out on a limb for VR nine months ago, and I respected his daring. Experiencing what his journalists and Samsung are creating every day at Daily 360 makes me think Mark Thompson’s bold bet is already paying off.

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