Last year, The New York Times made virtual reality history by shipping a million Google Cardboard headsets to its print magazine subscribers. The decision put VR into the homes of people who knew almost nothing about it, and who certainly wouldn't have set out to buy Cardboard of their own volition. This week, another venerable institution is getting in on the fun: Sports Illustrated. And in a move that should surprise absolutely no one, the magazine is making its jump to VR in the magazine's infamous Swimsuit issue.
When the Swimsuit issue comes out today, it will do so alongside an iOS and Android companion app, featuring news, photography, video, and — more unusually — virtual reality clips. Like The New York Times, Sports Illustrated is including Cardboard-compatible headsets with its magazine. Instead of going to subscribers, though, they're bundled with about 500,000 special newsstand versions of the Swimsuit issue, which will cost around 10 dollars — two dollars above the normal price. (Subscribers will apparently be able to order a headset for $2.99.) The app itself will have unlockable content that's free for subscribers or buyers of the special edition, but $4.99 for everyone else. That includes about half of the clips in the VR section, which can be unlocked on its own for $1.99. It's one of the first paywalls I've seen for non-pornographic 360-degree video, and it's something that other VR filmmakers are going to have to start thinking about soon.
It's one of the first times I've seen someone try to outright sell mainstream VR video
The videos, a few minutes apiece, are meant to be played in any headset based on the Google Cardboard design. For people without one, there's a flatscreen version that lets viewers move their devices to uncover different parts of the scene — like a racier version of Google's Spotlight Stories. With names like "Beach Seduction" and "Day at the Spa," they're mildly naughty one-on-one sessions with various swimsuit-clad women from the latest issue. "What is it like to be on a Sports Illustrated photo shoot?" is the question they're meant to answer, says creative director Chris Hercik. Model Nina Agdal will also walk viewers through assembling a Cardboard-style headset, in something that is probably best described as a sexy Instructables video.
The most innocuous interpretation of the Swimsuit issue is that it's all about making beautiful people in beautiful places look more preternaturally beautiful than usual. In this sense, it's a perfect fit for virtual reality video. Sports Illustrated parent company Time, Inc. partnered with Wevr, a prolific studio that's behind a substantial amount of VR entertainment. My last encounter with Wevr was the washed-out quasi-found-footage tones of its mystery series Gone. By contrast, the Swimsuit issue clips pop with color, every square millimeter buffed into a little gem of tropical warmth.
There's certainly the occasional reminder that you're in a video, mostly when the space beneath your invisible feet distorts slightly. But on the whole, the simplicity of the Swimsuit issue's premise allows for a polish that's hard to do with more complicated projects. This is especially visible on the Gear VR, which sadly will only host Sports Illustrated clips during special launch events for the issue — the company wants to keep viewers as close to its Android and iOS apps as possible, something that a Gear VR release would undercut.
Granted, this solid execution also leaves more time to meditate on how strange the whole premise of the issue really is. This is hardly a revelation; the half-century-old Swimsuit issue is already surrounded by an all-consuming black hole of pontification about sex positivity, retro chauvinism, and traditional beauty standards — this year's three covers include one with MMA powerhouse Ronda Rousey in body paint, and another with the magazine's first plus-sized model, Ashley Graham.
This is exactly how '90s sci-fi screenwriters thought pornography would work
Every possible emotional response feels like it's playing into the hands of an annual manufactured controversy. Objecting to the issue's objectification seems quaint, but indifference feels like giving in to the status quo, where an ostensibly non-gendered magazine can regularly devote an entire issue to softcore pinups for (mostly) male sexual approval. (In its defense, Sports Illustrated says that 16 million of the issue's 60 million readers are female, although that might just mean they get it as part of a normal subscription.) And accepting it as a celebration of female sexuality whitewashes the magazine's historical under-representation of women the rest of the year, though that may be changing. After all, the core problem with objectification isn't sexualized depictions of women, it's a world that promotes sexualization as women's default state, overshadowing the rest of their qualities and achievements as human beings.
Fortunately, the virtual reality clips lend themselves to a more fun response: Oh my God, this is just like a '90s sci-fi movie. It's the exact kind of thing screenwriters thought space marines and teenage hackers would stash in their bunks and capsule hotels by the year 2020: virtual reality headsets where sultry-eyed but technically clothed models beckon an imaginary viewer to ogle them. The main difference is that everyone in Sports Illustrated's videos has decently tasteful hair, nobody is gyrating to techno music, and the headsets are cardboard boxes that would probably seem too low-budget for all but the cheapest B-movies.
This isn't a one-off project for Sports Illustrated. It's the launch of what Hercik hopes will be a long run of virtual reality coverage. "Our writers and photographers get to go places most people won't ever see," he says. "So how do we take advantage of our access and take our audience along with us?" This ethos is popular in both VR journalism generally, and sports-related VR specifically — Hercik mentions possibly streaming live events, which production company NextVR is already doing for sports like boxing, basketball, and golf. Whatever Sports Illustrated is planning, we can expect it this year. At the soonest, it could be in the next few months — as the race to figure out virtual reality starts in earnest.