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Why The New York Times is sending cheap VR headsets to all its print subscribers

The New York Times will send more than a million Google Cardboard virtual reality kits to its subscribers, the paper announced on Tuesday.

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    The New York Times will send Google Cardboard virtual reality kits to all its print subscribers in advance of a series of VR documentary films. Here, The New York Times building is shown on Eighth Avenue in New York.
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The New York Times is no stranger to the digital realm. The paper has had a website since 1996, and the Times has been a pioneer in figuring out how to make money from online story views.

But on Tuesday, Times executives announced the Grey Lady is getting into virtual reality, as well. The Times will distribute a Google Cardboard VR headset to each of its more than one million print subscribers, and will collaborate with the search giant on a series of documentary films to be presented in virtual reality.

Google Cardboard is a pretty simple approach to virtual reality. As the name indicates, it’s a piece of cardboard that can be folded into a pair of goggles, into which a user can insert an iPhone or Android phone. The headset uses a pair of 40mm focal-length lenses to transform the phone’s screen into a virtual reality world, allowing users to interact with compatible apps by moving their heads or touching a small magnetic button.

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The Times says that, rather than simply watching a documentary, subscribers will be able to feel as though they’re in the middle of the action. The paper’s first VR film, “The Displaced,” will be released on November 5 and will focus on children in South Sudan, Ukraine, and Syria who have been uprooted by war.

“Our readers look to The Times for innovative and powerful storytelling and this is The Times at its best,” executive editor Dean Baquet said in a statement. “Our Magazine team has created the first critical, serious piece of journalism using virtual reality, to shed light on one of the most dire humanitarian crises of our lifetime.”

The Times says it plans to release many more virtual reality films to subscribers in the future, including a behind-the-scenes look at how the magazine made its inventive “Walking New York” cover for the April 22  issue.

Virtual reality “gives the viewer a unique sense of empathic connection to people and events,” New York Times Magazine Editor in Chief Jake Silverstein said in a statement. “In the context of international reporting and conflict reporting, where our readers rely on us to bring them news and stories from remote and inaccessible places, this has huge potential.”

Other newspapers have considered using virtual reality to augment their print reporting, but most VR headsets that are available today, such as the Razer OSVR and the Samsung Gear VR, cost a few hundred dollars. That’s costly enough that most people won’t pick one up just to be able to experience the news in a new way. By shipping cheap Google Cardboard kits to subscribers, the Times is knocking down a major barrier to virtual reality adoption.

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