With virtual reality in its first year of real availability, Time Inc. is launching an initiative that will majorly expand its VR journalism program. The newly announced Life VR will host projects created for the company’s various outlets, which include Sports Illustrated, People, and InStyle. While Life VR will feature the kind of 360-degree video pieces that have become increasingly popular online, the company hopes to branch out into all kinds of VR, including more interactive experiences. An app is coming to Android and iOS, where users will be able to watch on either a flat screen or a Google Cardboard headset, and its contents will be released on the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Gear VR.
Life VR represents a new iteration of the once-iconic Life magazine, which currently exists as a photo-focused section of the main Time site. Managing editor Mia Tramz describes it as following the dream set forward by Time Inc. co-founder Henry Luce in an early prospectus for Life, which he aimed to turn into "the biggest picture show on Earth" when it launched in 1936. "When you read that, it sounds like a VR pitch. It’s really beautiful," says Tramz.
For now, Life VR is launching with three experiences, with new pieces coming out monthly (or potentially more often). The first is adapted from Defying the Nazis, a Ken Burns documentary about Martha and Waitstill Sharp, who smuggled hundreds of people out of Nazi Germany during World War II. Defying the Nazis VR dramatizes a voyage across the Atlantic in virtual reality, layered with voiceover and archival images from the documentary. The second, Fast Ride, lets viewers take a ride in the Mazda 787 racecar. The third, Lumen, is a short meditation experience that puts viewers inside a psychedelic garden, where they can control the growth of plants and the color of the sky. All are produced in collaboration with outside partners, including the studios Wevr, VR Playhouse, and Framestore.
"We're so early in the medium as a narrative storytelling device."
To aid its virtual reality work, Time Inc. has assembled a makeshift VR room in its Manhattan offices, a clear glass cube bounded by the HTC Vive’s laser beacons. Despite this, all its current experiences will still work on Google Cardboard, the lowest common denominator of headsets. This gives material the greatest reach, but also prevents creators from taking advantage of more sophisticated headsets’ capabilities, making anything but the simplest of interactions difficult. "We’d like it to [all support Cardboard], just because it's the most accessible to the general public right now," says Tramz. "I think there will be experiences in the future where there's a limited version available on Cardboard, and for the full experience you go to Vive, or you go to one of the other headsets." Perhaps partly because users must hold Cardboard to their heads at all times, most of Life VR’s pieces will be short, around three minutes — although one, coming later this year, will approach ten minutes.
InStyle has previously published a 360-degree tour of a Drew Barrymore photo shoot, and Sports Illustrated dipped a toe into VR with a companion app for its annual Swimsuit issue, which offered a handful of videos for free and asked users to pay to unlock more. So far, Life VR isn’t following this model; everything will be free, and Time Inc. will look for sponsors as the program matures. "We're so early in the medium as a narrative storytelling device," says Tramz. "It feels very nascent and early, and I think we're excited to be early to that as well."
Several competing outlets have already put significant resources into virtual reality. The New York Times has a dedicated app that hosts high-profile pieces like The Displaced and Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart, and AOL acquired VR studio RYOT to produce video for sites like The Huffington Post. At the same time, flatscreen 360-degree video — the kind that can be found on Facebook and YouTube — still vastly overshadows headset-based VR. Time Inc. plans to ramp up its production of 360-degree video in general, some of which will come to Life VR. But Tramz says that they won’t be backing down from virtual reality. "I think we're pretty invested in VR at this point," she says. "I see it being something that Time Inc. has really gotten behind in a big way, and will continue to support."