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Quantum shift: welcome to The New York Times' VR future

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'This medium doesn't just bring you closer. This medium actually brings you there.'

Yesterday, The New York Times released The Displaced, its second and most ambitious virtual reality film, alongside the new NYT VR app. The 11-minute documentary, produced in partnership with film studio Vrse, follows the daily lives of three refugee children across the world. That night, the Times celebrated the launch with a screening in Manhattan — if you're wondering what a VR screening party looks like, imagine several dozen people grabbing a phone, sticking it in Google Cardboard, and moving their heads around silently while sneaking glances at the rest of the audience.

It's the panel discussion afterwards, though, that proved more interesting, providing a deeper look at how the Times and Vrse approach VR — a look that's alternately informative, thoughtful, bombastic, and strangely unreflective of how The Displaced actually takes advantage of the medium's limits and potential.

VR is a new enough medium that even the basics of cinematography can be fascinating to hear about. For the unfamiliar, 360-degree videos require what is essentially a tripod-mounted ball covered in cameras. Instead of pointing a camera at something to capture a scene, The Displaced's directors would set the ball out, start filming, and hide behind a bush or some other cover watching the action from afar. "You can't really see what you're shooting, so a lot of it feels very raw," said co-director Ben Solomon. "A lot of the cameras we used are basically hacked [together]."

"You can't really see what you're shooting, so a lot of it feels very raw."

The other co-director, Imraan Ismail, had a pithier analogy: "It's not like going out and hunting with a gun. It's more like laying traps."

While things got more cerebral from there, the whole Times event was about the fundamental difference of virtual reality. Vrse CEO Chris Milk outright called it "the last medium" — the ultimate step in human communication, bridging the gap between representation and reality. "We started in caves and we moved to tribes and towns and villages and cities, but we still care about the things that are in our immediate vicinity. And the mediums that we've created over time — literature, radio, television, cinema, journalism — are essentially tools that try to take things that are far away from us and make them feel closer," he said.

Now, he said, virtual reality is a "quantum shift" that creates a completely different kind of connection. "This medium doesn't just bring you closer. This medium actually brings you there and places you on the ground." It's why he and others argue that virtual reality is a powerful empathy generator, and that it can make manipulating the truth more difficult.

At an event held by the Times, which is still built on written journalism, it was slightly uncomfortable. There was a weird moment where Times photographer Lynsey Addario said she felt "almost obsolete" when she started shooting the accompanying still images. "I look at this technology and I think, wow, this is so incredible. Why am I taking still photographs? They're never going to speak to an audience in the way that virtual reality does." She said she still sees power in photographs, though, and all the Times staff there agreed that VR is ultimately another tool in a large arsenal of storytelling options.

"Why am I taking still photographs? They're never going to speak to an audience in the way that virtual reality does."

That's representative of the tension here. On one hand, virtual reality is treated like such a revolutionary shift that it can barely be compared to other media, a thing that will overturn all our assumptions about communication. On the other, it's supposed to be a complementary option like photography and video. In The Displaced, we might see the field where one of the children mentions she's picking cucumbers. But unless you read the written profile, you won't connect it to the long, punishing seasons of fruit, nut, and vegetable picking she describes, or the comparatively luxurious life her family left behind in Syria. The very thing that makes VR video realistic also limits the kind of information it can convey.

And as a total shift in journalism, the NYT VR project is frustrating. That description puts VR forward as not just different, but massively superior, ignoring the complexities of human communication. And it downplays the powerful role older media plays in The Displaced. Google Cardboard's unique properties, like the way it demands someone's full attention, vividly illustrate the children's experiences in a way text can't. The short film is most powerful, though, when you've read the more complex written story of their lives as refugees, getting context that pure immersive video can't deliver. The Displaced is a perfect example of how virtual reality journalism can work well — but only because it's not just virtual reality.