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New York Times Goes Big on VR at the NewFronts

THE NEW YORK TIMES NEWFRONT

THE LEAD

A Visual Future

THE GOODS

Black NYT branded bag with Google Cardboard, NYTVR branded ear buds, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Style Magazine.

THE SURPRISE

A performance from Lion Babe.

THE TAKEAWAY

Story[X]:

A physical space within The Times designed to explore and develop products for the evolution of storytelling’s future.

Investment in VR:

– NY Times Magazine to debut the first episodic series in the fall: Voyages.

– T Magazine will debut its first VR films this fall as well, “tak[ing] audiences behind closed doors into creative, historic and rarely-seen spaces”

– Distribution of 300,000 Google Cardboard units with the release of VR film “Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart”.

More details: NYT NewFronts Press Release

THE CHALLENGE

The Times has a healthy lead in the VR space and top-notch storytellers to capitalize on the technology in ever-evolving ways. The challenge for any brand is delivering these stories at scale, and in a way that compliments and enhances a brand’s image.

THE EXPERIENCE

A sea of suits greets me as I walk into the Times Center. I dodge and weave my way to the coffee carafes at the far end and then stand sipping until the doors to the auditorium are at last opened.

“This is like a heard of cattle,” I say to a woman just inches from the nape of my neck. “It’s like the subway,” she says “free seats!” 

I tuck myself away in the corner on the far left side of the space. A sleek, slowly shifting amalgamation of the Times logo incorporating their various sub-brands plays on the projection screen.

Mark Thompson, CEO, steps out onto the stage and over the course of his pre-amble three main statements emerge:

“The future of media is great content.”

“The future of media is global.”

“The future of media is visual.”

Expounding on these themes, a video is played featuring Lion Babe – the dynamic DJ/Singer duet. Its style references the Bieber and Skrillex piece released in 2015: a marriage of graphics, data and artistic perspective.

Following the video, the Lion Babe duo unexpectedly emerge and erupt into performance. While an interesting enough pop song, it’s always odd to convert a coffee drinking corporate crowd into early-morning concert carousers, but the effort is appreciated.

Meredith Kopit Levien, CRO, announces the creation of Story[X] – a physical space within The Times designed to explore and develop products for the evolution of storytelling’s future.

She’s followed by a line-up of reporters accompanied by stark and sometimes sobering images as they talk through the story arc of recent and upcoming articles – an affirmation of both the New York Times’ commitment to strong visuals and the strength and talent of their press core.

Fast forward to the crowning moment – a look inside NYT VR, The New York Times’ Virtual Reality unit. Last year, The New York Times distributed 1 million Google Cardboard units and their NYT VR app is now the most successful product launch in the company’s history.

Each of us reaches for the Google Cardboard within the event bag. It’s already kitted out with an iPhone with the NYT VR App loaded. We’re told – somewhat awkwardly – that this is not a gift and has to be returned, but that we can keep the cardboard box. The ripping of Velcro resonates through the space as the phones are calibrated and then, following an enthusiastic countdown, we all press play on “Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart”, an examination of the dwarf planet.

The images are awe-inspiring, and the narration entrancing — filled with the kind of heady wonder you’d expect from a piece on space exploration. A sound bed of stereoscopic choral music adds to the haunting austerity of space. I’m transported to the surface of Pluto and its inhospitable terrain, the radiant glow of the stars all around. I pull my head from the unit momentarily, and observe others doing the same – as curious about how they look as what they’re looking at, which will continue to be a challenge to the headset-laden VR world.

The Times has a healthy lead in the VR space and top-notch storytellers to capitalize on the technology in ever-evolving ways. The challenge for any brand is delivering these stories at scale, and in a way that compliments and enhances a brand’s image.

SVP Advertising & Innovation, Sebastian Tomich, sums up the experience succinctly:

“We believe that visual advertising is the future.”