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The New York Times is Sending Out a Second Round of Google Cardboards
By: The Verge
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Last November, The New York Times and Google organized a massive giveaway of Google Cardboard, shipping a million of the disposable virtual reality headsets alongside a new "NYT VR" app. Next month, they're doing it again — this time for online-only subscribers. Next month, the Times will send out 300,000 Cardboard headsets to its "most loyal" digital customers, based on subscription length. Their arrival will coincide with the May 19th release of its eighth VR production: Seeking Pluto's Frigid Heart, a visualization of the dwarf planet based on data from the New Horizons spacecraft.

Based on numbers published last year, these Cardboard headsets will reach about a third of the Times' million-strong digital readership. It's a change from the first run of Cardboards, which were shipped alongside every home print copy. New York Times senior editor Sam Dolnick chalks the difference up to logistical difficulties. "It was a lot easier to do a million print subscribers, simply because we were already in their house Sunday afternoons," he says — selected digital subscribers will get a headset sent to whatever address the Times has on file. "We're starting with this first batch of our longest, most loyal subscribers, and then we'll see if there's other appetite and opportunities down the road."

This leaves some hope for more recent subscribers, but it doesn't suggest we'll see regular distributions — and the Times may be shifting its attention past simple, disposable headsets. "There's lots of VR companies who will tell you that the world's moving beyond Cardboard pretty quickly, and more substantial headsets will be catching on in the coming months and years," says Dolnick, who confirms the Times is talking to the companies behind other major platforms. "We don't yet have a date on when we're going to launch on other platforms, but the world's moving pretty quickly, and I think we're going that direction too."

But this would require large numbers of people to make real investments in VR headsets, and right now, even having access to Google Cardboard isn't a sure thing. The Times says NYT VR has been downloaded 600,000 times, but because it also offers non-VR options, this doesn't necessarily translate directly to Cardboard viewership. While the Times has settled into a subscription model for print and digital journalism, there's also no long-term understanding of how to make money off VR. Several news outlets — including Vice, ABC, and The Verge — have released virtual reality shorts. None, however, have charged for the content so far. Dolnick calls the Times videos "a premium offering," but he says it's too early to do more than experiment. For now, any Cardboard owner can watch Seeking Pluto's Frigid Heart for free through the NYT VR iOS and Android apps or through YouTube, and everyone else can see it as a 360-degree flatscreen video.

Seeking Pluto's Frigid Heart is the first New York Times production to use computer-generated images instead of live-action video, which makes up the vast majority of VR journalism. Previous pieces have covered refugee children, the US presidential election, and the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Paris. But like those videos, it's still designed to evoke the feeling of actually visiting a new place — something Dolnick describes as a guiding ethos of the program. "In traditional magazine journalism, often somebody comes up with an idea and the editors will say, 'That's a great world, but there's no story,'" he says. "And now in VR, it feels like it's a little bit flipped. The editors will say, 'Well, that's a neat story. But we really need a world.'"

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This article was published on The Verge. A link to the original article can be found after the post.
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