The New York Times' virtual reality app was downloaded more times in its first four days than any Times app before, and viewers spent an impressive average of nearly 15 minutes using it, according to the Times. That's a welcome result for the involved players, which spent unusual time, energy and money trying to achieve liftoff with a nascent consumer technology.
The project was the biggest ever for Cardboard, the VR viewer from Google that is literally made mostly from cardboard plus two plastic lenses. Its largest prior effort came last July, when Google distributed 100,000 of the devices on behalf of AT&T for the "It Can Wait" campaign against texting and driving. Last weekend, around 1 million Cardboard viewers landed on the doorsteps of Times home-delivery subscribers along with the paper.
"That really created an amazing opportunity because most people don't have high-end headsets," said Lee Nadler, marketing communications manager for Mini USA, one of two advertisers that backed the Times VR project. The company produced two virtual reality films "to connect with a creative, innovative group of people who are a big part of our target audience for Mini," he said.
That was no small commitment for Mini, whose six-minute short film "Backwater" is one of two featured in the NYTVR app, which lets people watch either through a Cardboard device or without one, albeit in a non-VR state.
Creating content for virtual reality "definitely takes a bit more planning than usual," Mr. Nadler said. It costs more too. Pre-production costs around one and a half times as much as it does for a standard digital video, Mr. Nadler said, while the shoot can cost around twice as much and post-production runs around 10 times the usual.
Times editorial staff had thought about virtual reality and its journalistic story-telling potential before, but only found a way to move forward when they met with Google at SXSW in Austin in March. "That's when it really clicked for us," said Andy Wright, senior VP-advertising and publisher, The New York Times Magazine.
Once the two companies agreed to work together, finding brands to help fund the unprecedented undertaking was not difficult, according to Mr. Wright. GE and Mini were the only two companies the Times approached with the idea, and both signed on readily, he said.
"Backwater" tells the story of a diamond heist with a 360-degree perspective, beginning on a docked boat from which viewers can peer up, down and around. A conversation begins, prompting the viewer to turn to see where it's coming from. Later, inside a fish distribution facility, diamonds burst from a case; as a fight erupts, men in heavy-duty raincoats stop their work and gawk.
"We needed to stitch all these images together," Mr. Nadler said. "It's a difficult and costly thing to do."
The film highlights the Mini Connected system, which tethers the vehicle dashboard to applications such as Spotify and allows drivers to operate a GoPro camera mounted outside the car from the steering wheel.
Another Mini VR short, "Real Memories" is available on YouTube as well as in the NYTVR app. If viewed on a computer, the video simulates the virtual reality device experience, allowing viewers to click to see the shot from various angles.
"We decided with Mini to create two narratives, two films, and include the car and the product, but not make it a product demo," said Mr. Nadler. The shorts were created by WPP-owned KKLD, with direction and production by Bipolar ID.
A GE video, produced by The New York Times's in-house T Brand Studio in conjunction with Hollywood studio Framestore, is also featured in the NYTVR app. "Nature Is Inspiring Our Industrial Future" draws the viewer into an animated world in which butterflies, birds, fish and other creatures dance in kaleidoscope-like patterns, later morphing into a field dotted with wind turbines and ultimately a cityscape.
Over the weekend, hundreds of photos using the #NYTVR hashtag flooded Instagram. Some people turned their Google Cardboard into personal works of artistic expression, posting photos of themselves behind the unfolded devices as though they were masks.
"We began in a really big way, building an audience that is actually hungry for this kind of content," said Jake Silverstein, editor in chief for The New York Times Magazine, who called the project "a watershed moment" for virtual reality story-telling.
The editorial centerpiece of the experience is "The Displaced," an 11-minute film about the disrupted lives of three children living as refugees away from their war-torn countries. It shows twelve-year-old Syrian-born Hana crouching in a field in rural Lebanon, plucking cucumbers from the earth; later the viewer rides in the back of a truck by her side.
In another scene, sacks of food fall like fat raindrops from planes in a humanitarian aid drop. The viewer is standing right there on the open plain as women in brightly-colored skirts dash in every direction to harvest the bags. Virtual reality production firm VRSE.Works, which worked on the publisher's first experimental VR film, "Walking in New York," also partnered on the creation of The Displaced.
It took the publisher's print delivery staff 10 weeks to insert the devices by hand for the initial distribution to print subscribers. Status meetings brought the firm's digital and print teams together like never before, involving app developers, VR video production staff, and those managing the actual logistics of the device delivery process. "It was such a great combination of muscles that the NY Times has," said Mr. Silverstein.
When asked whether Google has done anything like the New York Times initiative with another publication, Aaron Luber head of partnerships for VR at Google responded, "The bigger question is have we done anything like this with anybody?" In addition to the AT&T project, Google has distributed its Cardboard devices -- the specs for which Google makes freely available for other companies to adopt -- through partnerships with Volvo and Lowe's, as well as Legendary Pictures at Comic-Con. Google expects the relationship with the Times to be a long one, Mr. Luber said.
Next up: a "very, very different" VR content project, according to Mr. Silverstein. Coming in December, the next iteration will include entertainment-related content and sponsors to be announced soon, along with delivery of Cardboard to digital subscribers.