This past Saturday The New York Times, as part of a collaboration with Google, delivered an unusual promotional insert to more than a million subscribers receiving its weekend edition.
What looks at first like a novelty item - the simplest imaginable image viewer and its accompanying sample stories - constitutes the Times' ambitious bet on virtual reality (VR) as a new medium for delivering serious journalism. The device itself is just a very accessible door, opening to far more slick and sophisticated VR technology that will become widely available early next year.
The Google 'Cardboard' that came with the Times is charmingly simple. It looks like something you might fold up out of the lid of a pizza box. It has a superficial resemblance to the old View-Master with its discs of transparencies that gave you individual access to pictures of the Canadian Rockies, or Snow White, or Cinderella. You cranked down a lever at the side to move to the next scene. Every family had one at some point in the fifties and sixties.
Now, your cellphone sits inside the front of a cardboard viewer very close to the eyes. You view its split screen through a pair of simple embedded lenses. You plug earphones into your cellphone and hold the Google cardboard viewer to your face, moving your head to view different aspects of the virtual environment. But this is a low-end taste of what is just around the corner.
In another, even bigger, bet on Virtual Reality in March last year, Facebook bought the Oculus Rift VR delivery system for around US$2billion. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who believes "immersive virtual and augmented reality will become part of people's everyday life", wants to see 50 to 100 million Oculus Rift headsets in people's living rooms as soon as possible.
Palmer Luckey, the young Californian who developed the Oculus Rift headset, finally resolved the technical obstacles sufficient to provide a convincingly immersive experience. The holy grail of this technology is a sense of 'presence', described by Oculus' chief technology officer, John Carmack, as "a cellular conviction, both unimpeachable and too deep for words - that you are in another world."
And speaking of 'another world', The Displaced is one of the two sample videos delivered in the Times this Saturday. It takes the viewer/participant into the lives of three children displaced by war in Ukraine, South Sudan, and Syria.
The experience is certainly immersive: look up and you see the sky as if it were right there. The Ukrainian child Oleg is talking to you among the rubble of his school. Nine-year old Chuol speaks to you standing in the swamp water of South Sudan where he has fled with his grandmother. Hana, a 12 year-old refugee from Syria is picking cucumbers in Lebanon - one of the many Syrian children who no longer attend school and risk becoming a 'lost generation'.
This form of immersive journalism takes time and a great deal of money to produce. Now the technology is commercially viable, and that filmed VR environments are possible, there is a great wave of innovative content being developed - at both basement and very well-funded corporate levels.
VR has a long history of use in flight simulation, high-end engineering, and medicine. Like much innovation in communication technology, expect it to be driven also by the military and the pornography industry. With the development of haptic technology allowing for the simulation of a sense of touch in a virtual environment, we are on the way to passing through the looking glass.
At a recent VR meet-up in the Microsoft building in Times Square, inside an Oculus Rift headset, inside the Death Star, with a light saber in each hand, I fended off random blazing projectiles fired at me from a hovering drone. I was convincingly there, as I flailed away desperately, trailing a cable that linked me to a computer, with a plastic box strapped to my face, in the foyer of the building surrounded by strangers.
After escaping the Death Star, less than victorious, I spoke to the software developer. He was over from California to show his latest product. "People want light sabers, so we give them light sabers" he said, "but our next product is going to be a virtual tour through the human brain."
I sit here imagining what my brain would look like in a virtual environment; which synapses are firing, whether it will be grey and white or if they'll do it in color, how it looks when I'm fighting in the Death Star compared to eating my cereal.
And then I remember the three kids in The New York Times story, made virtual to demonstrate all this - the kids that no longer get to attend school or have any sense of a viable future. They're talking to us from their disintegrating world, telling us as we hold a cardboard box to our faces so they look more real, "Look, here's what it looks like, and it's your world too!"
Richard McLachlan is a New Zealander currently living in New York.