Magazine Publishers Begin to Embrace Virtual Reality
Major brands launch VR projects as audience awareness and hype grow.
If you want to know why magazine brands are investing in virtual reality, just look at the numbers. NYTVR, the virtual reality app launched by The New York Times Magazine last November, has an average of 6.5 minutes of audience engagement per session.
“That’s 6.5 minutes of people putting cardboard up to their heads,” Andy Wright, SVP, advertising and publisher of The New York Times Magazine, tells Folio:. “In digital media terms, that’s mind-blowing.”
On Nov. 7 and 8, in conjunction with Google Cardboard, 1 million home subscribers received VR headsets with their daily newspaper. With an invitation to download the app, and The New York Times Magazine cover story to match, readers were engulfed in a multimedia journalistic experience called “The Displaced,” which follows three child refugees from around the world.
“I really believe that weekend was a moment. Socially it trended all weekend long… There was a ton of press. So it really was a watershed moment that made it a much broader focal point for a lot of publishers,” Wright tells Folio:.
“The Displaced” launched on the app along with films for two sponsors, GE and Mini. GE worked with the in-house branded content workshop T Brand Studio to create a custom 360 animated film. Mini joined the project with two existing films that were looking for distribution.
The New York Times now develops VR content across the magazine, newspaper, and T Brand Studio. An additional 300,000 Google Cardboard headsets were sent to select digital subscribers in spring. The app now has over 850,000 downloads and over 10 million views. New content is uploaded a few times a month, but Wright says that will increase exponentially into next year.
Despite the growth in content, there is no true virtual reality team. Jenna Pirog, producer of “The Displaced,” joined the magazine as The New York Times’ first ever virtual reality editor, and works on editorial content across publications. Everyone else, Wright says, has just incorporated VR into their job duties.
“In the initial several months, what was amazing about it is that we took existing staff who treated this almost as a passion project, and people were able to mobilize around it,” Wright says. “They were excited about it, and we acted almost like a startup.”
Outside of The New York Times, it’s not uncommon for publishers to team up with external VR producers. Time Inc. published 360 video under the Sports Illustrated and InStyle brands, and in May it announced an impending project called LIFE VR in conjunction with the existing LIFE brand.
Content for Sports Illustrated was in partnership with Wevr and InStyle produced their two 360 videos with River Studios. While Time Inc. wouldn’t comment on the projects, the company announced in May that it partnered with the California-based firm NextVR to develop content for the LIFE VR app.
The business model for Time Inc.’s VR seems to be under renovation. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit app, which promises “exclusive virtual reality content that will put you on set with Swimsuit’s hottest models,” is presented by Lexus, with the brand’s logo on key pages of the app. In-app purchases from $1.99–$4.99 open more content, though magazine subscribers can access premium content for free.
LIFE VR, however, will be operated in part by The Foundry, Time Inc.’s own branded content studio. While spokespeople wouldn’t comment on the topic, it seems possible that Time Inc. will also unveil branded VR content.
The future of VR
There are a few major VR projects on the docket in the upcoming months.
In September, Condé Nast will release a six-episode scripted series in VR. The Doug Liman directed series, entitled “Invisible,” tells the story of a New York family with secret powers. The project is produced in partnership with Jaunt and Samsung, and is sponsored exclusively by Lexus.
Also in September, The New York Times Magazine will release a VR series in conjunction with their twice-yearly, travel-themed issue. The September issue, “Voyages,” will be image-heavy and showcase multiple destinations chosen by photographers. The associated VR content will show these destinations from the photographers’ point-of-view.
Though smaller in scale, Hearst too will dip their toes in VR. The publisher announced a partnership between Cosmopolitan and “Magic Mike Live,” a male-stripper centered performance launching at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas in March 2017. The partnership includes articles, galleries, videos and quizzes, as well as some virtual reality, according to WWD.
While VR is not necessarily new, the recent explosion can be linked to improvements in technology. Wright says on the production side, efficiency has increased for The New York Times since it started working with VR. Just last year, editors had to manually stitch together video footage, often leaving an obvious seam in the video. Today, this process is automated, which means it takes less time to create each new piece.
Plus, audiences seem to be catching on.
“When you have 57 percent coming back for more, month after month, that shows that they’re seeing this as a whole new way to experience and be present in a story,” Wright says. “So we think this is something that will continue to build and be a big way in which The New York Times tells stories.”