Last weekend, America woke up, scratched its ass, and stumbled out to the front porch to find a little cardboard box inside the big blue bag holding the Sunday New York Times. America was probably a bit puzzled, at first, by this box in its newspaper. It hadn't had coffee yet and its breath still stank and it furrowed its brow as it read the instructions.
But then, it put the box on its face. And: Whoa.
For a lot of people, Sunday marked their first experience with virtual reality. The cardboard box that came with the Times was a Google Cardboard viewer, a box that fits over your smartphone and turns it into a portal for immersive, 360-degree video. The kind of thing where you can turn your head, look up, look down, and see different things come into view. You are surrounded by video.
The Times sent out more than 1 million (!!!) of these little boxes. But it’s the number of people who downloaded the NYT VR app that really matters. That is the best way to roughly estimate the number of people who really saw the future for the first time, versus the number of people who were simply mystified or annoyed to find a little box tucked in with their paper.
The Times won’t release download numbers, but a spokesperson did tell BuzzFeed News that it was its "most successful app launch ever." It had more downloads in its first three days than any other Times app has previously had at launch. More importantly, 92% of the video views were in Cardboard mode and people spent an average of 14.7 minutes in the app. Meanwhile, Google saw a record week for Cardboard app installs — almost certainly driven by the Times which all at once doubled the number of Cardboard viewers in the wild — but Google isn't giving out download numbers either.
What that unwillingness from the Times and Google means is that probably not very many people actually tried this — if you are thinking in grand terms of 300 million Americans, or the 7 billion people of Earth. But also, it’s almost certainly true that more people experienced VR for the first time over that weekend than ever before, and there certainly has never been a shared VR experience at that scale. Which is to say: It was enough.
Moreover, the entire month, as narrowly as we are into it, has been a landslide of VR news. Just today, Facebook rolled out 360-degree video for iOS (after releasing it to desktop and the Web in September). YouTube is converting its entire catalog to Cardboard-ready video and adding depth perception to its VR video. The $99 consumer version of the Samsung Gear VR headset went on sale. And all of that is just a precursor to next year, when the long-awaited Oculus Rift headset — the device that really kicked off the current VR boom — will finally go on sale to consumers. So too will Sony’s Project Morpheus, and the HTC Vive. In short: The next new goldrush is on.
(And, to be up front, BuzzFeed is out there panning the rivers. We've built a drone-mounted VR camera in our Open Lab, are experimenting with VR annotation, and have just released the first in a series of VR videos.)
Some pointed out that what so many people experienced last weekend wasn’t true VR — it was 360 video. This was not mere pedantry. With 360 video, you can look in any direction and see different things. But when you look to your left and see a doorway, you can’t go through it. With full VR, on the other hand, you'll step through the door into an entirely other room.
The difference between those two experiences is profound. And yet 360 video is the thing that will make you want more. It’s a very effective gateway drug to true VR.
Like many other people (if social media is any indicator) I handed the Times’ VR kit to my young child. She gasped and said “wooooooooooooow” and wandered around the living room bumping into furniture.
But not really. Not in her head, at least. In her mind she was in Africa. And Ukraine. And Lebanon. All the places that the Times took its readers in its stories. She watched the videos from the Times one by one until she had exhausted them all, and demanded more.
Viewing the Versailles tour in the Google Cardboard app: "Daddy! I'm in the palace where the king and queen live!" On an island tour: “I’m flying! I’m in the air! I’m a real bird!” She was all in, and she even retreated to a closet to better be left alone in her new world. She had to be led out again. It was distantly disturbing.
I couldn’t help but think of what VR would mean for children’s storytelling experiences. Imagining a VR version of Hogwarts made me swoon at the thought of the fortunes to be made (and lost). Lots of people will go bankrupt chasing bad ideas that look really fucking cool.
Yet what utterly transfixed my daughter, and what she asked to see again and again, was something much simpler. It was dinner.
A few weeks ago I took a Ricoh Theta S home. It's a handheld 360-degree video camera that is small enough to fit in your front pocket. The video quality isn't that great compared to GoPro rigs. But it's cheap and pocketable and unobtrusive and feels like the future in a way that a giant camera array does not. I placed it on our dinner table without comment and sat down to a meal. It was small enough — and our dinner chaotic enough — that no one noticed.
When I played the video back for my daughter in the cardboard viewer, she was transfixed by this utterly normal event. She played it on repeat until the battery on my phone died. It was a chance for her to step outside of herself. She was her and not her. It was wild.
And yet she also fully accepted it, and the entire day, as something completely normal.
Which is what VR is about to be, for all of us. For kids, it’s just something they’ll grow up with and won’t think about. It will be just like all the other ambient technology that has become so common, we accept it without consideration. (Airplanes, automobiles, electricity, internet, photography, antibiotics, air conditioning, smartphones.) Get ready to have your mind blown by your first VR experience, sometime in the next 12 months if it hasn’t happened already. And then: Get ready for it to be just another thing, in the cavalcade of crazy things we take for granted.
Mat Honan is the San Francisco bureau chief for BuzzFeed News. Formerly a senior staff writer at Wired, he has been writing about the technology industry and its impact on society for nearly 20 years.
Contact Mat Honan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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