Why I am jazzed about NYT VR

By Joy Portella, President, Minerva Strategies ̶

As a communicator who deals with global issues, I constantly struggle with how to convey the work of our clients to people who will never see that work firsthand.

I’m not talking about trying to construct victims’ narratives. I want people to understand and respond to the plight of mothers-to-be in rural Ethiopia who do not have access to health services, or bright and eager but isolated young people in the Gaza Strip who dream of a better life, or inventors in India working to bring solar electricity to their remote villages.

We know that most people we’re talking to will never go to Ethiopia, Gaza, or India. So how do you make these stories, these struggles, these solutions real for people?

I’ve been at this work for 15+ years, and it ain’t easy. Part of the answer is good old-fashioned character-driven storytelling that gets people emotionally involved but doesn’t condescend. Another part of the answer is to explore different storytelling platforms: compelling prose, captivating photos, and dynamic video. Social media has put new twists on these, allowing us to tweet out snippets of text or unleash our visuals to the world via Instagram.

This week, storytelling got a new twist with the introduction of the New York Times’ new mobile virtual reality app called NYT VR. Times subscribers received a cardboard Google viewer, and were instructed to download the NYT VR app. We were then invited to view a series of videos that would provide a 360-degree virtual reality experience on our iPhones.

One of the two featured videos is “The Displaced,” the stories of three children who represent the 30 million children around the world forced to flee their homes by conflict, poverty or a toxic combination of both. There’s Oleg, who’s 11 and left his village in the Ukraine during the war; his family returned to their hometown to find much of it bombed out and permanently changed. Chuol is 9 and lives in South Sudan. His family fled into the swamps when fighting reached his village, and they are now aid-dependent with no way to get home. Hana is 12 and her family left Syria for the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, where they eke out a meager existence working as migrant farmers.

All three stories are touching and masterfully interwoven through a theme of lost childhood. I found myself totally immersed not just in the children’s narratives but their surroundings. Through NYT VR’s 360-degree view, I was able to see food aid deliveries drop from the sky in South Sudan, and children clamor over rubble strewn about a Ukrainian village. I found myself oddly eager to turn on other senses so that I could smell and touch the cucumbers that Hana picked or the desperate human energy of Choul’s food drop scramble.

NYT VR is not perfect. The visual clarity could use work as images were a little fuzzy, and the amazing 360-degree view also creates issues tracking the translated text. My husband couldn’t get the app to download videos on his phone. The cardboard viewer looks silly and archaic, and there’s not much interactivity before, during, or after you watch the videos.

But as a storytelling tool, it is exciting. It’s not every day that I walk around my house bumping into furniture because a cardboard box has transported me into a refugee camp. And if NYT VR can consistently combine this new tool with outstanding character-driven storytelling to help their audience appreciate what life is like for people around the world, then I am all for it.