Publishing in a world of VR - lessons from the New York Times and their NYTVR app

Publishing in a world of VR - lessons from the New York Times and their NYTVR app

Virtual Reality (VR) is radically different to old fashioned story telling according to Meredith Kopit Levien, Chief Revenue Officer of the New York Times.  In fact VR has nothing to do with story telling full stop.  If the basic idea of traditional journalism is about creating a ‘narrative' via words and pictures, then VR is about providing an ‘experience’.  As Levien stated during her DMEXCO talk in Cologne last week, “VR isn’t an advancement of existing media, it’s completely different”.

And Levien and her NYT team know a lot about VR, having launched their VR app (NYTVR) at the beginning of the year, producing 29 VR films that have been viewed over 10 million times.  

For NYT VR has become a staple content format, however Levien is clear that VR isn’t right for everything.  Over the course of the last 6 months the NYT have created a VR playbook with 5 key rules for creating (or not) VR content . . .

1) It’s all about presence: the core to VR is “presence”, the idea of creating creating an experience that makes it feel like the person is present at the scene.  For example, as part of NYT’s coverage of the Presidential election they created a 360 video (on Facebook and YouTube) of what it’s like to be at a Donald Trump rally.  The execution was simple but hugely effective, with a 360 video camera placed amongst the crowds of a Trump rally, giving the viewer the ability to look around the audience and experience the energy, helping make the viewer 'feel present'. 

2) Mood creation: VR is most definitely not about linear storytelling, plot, directing or editing.  Rather, VR’s about creating a mood by stimulating the emotions of viewer via sensory experiences.  Because of this, when it comes to creating commercial VR projects via its T-Brand Studio they often have to turn down projects, as some ideas aren’t right for VR, meaning that only 12 out of their 200 commercial projects have included VR elements.

3) Content on the user’s terms: as people’s content consumption has become more fragmented across multiple different platforms and media formats, it’s important to create the right content for the right platform / format delivered at the right time for the end-user.  Possibly the most interesting example is the NYT’s coverage of the Olympics via SMS, where NYT’s sports editor sent 70 messages during the 14 days of the Olympics providing a 1-2-1 ‘personalised’ coverage, with witty daily updates.  The simplicity of this idea is the key, resulting in impressive results with 30,000 responses coming from the 20,000 users signed up to this service.  What this emphasised is that VR isn’t necessarily reliant on technology, but more anchored in this idea of creating a personalised experience for a user.

4) There’s no more frame to content: there’s now no need to frame / structure content via strict narratives within strict formats.  The concept of ‘in-between content’ is on the increase; content that doesn’t fit a strict narrative story, but may just be snapshots into a world / person’s life.  

5) A new operating model is needed: to do new things you need a new operating model.  For example, taking risks in experimentation is the new normal. There’s often no way of testing things.  As the NYT’s sports editor said about their Olympics SMS experiment ‘There is no dress rehearsal’.

And from this play book Levien and her NYT team are creating impressive VR content at scale.  Out of the 29 projects deliver for their NYTVR app to date, possibly a stand-out example is their ‘900ft up’ project, where professional climber-cum-videographer shot a series of 360 videos at the top of New York’s tallest buildings giving the audience a sense of what its like to live a high-rise life, 80 floors up.  Again a relatively simple idea, beautifully executed, resulting in a powerful and scary (for those of us scared of heights) experience that no words or pictures of any skilled NYT journalist could convincingly match.    

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Hackers Cologne meet-up (photos)

Hackers Cologne meet-up (photos)