Noah J Nelson on Tuesday, Nov. 10th
This weekend the New York Times shipped a special surprise out to its subscribers: a little piece of the future. Specially a Google Cardboard viewer, which lets people turn their (sufficiently powered) smartphone into a VR viewing device.
If you’re one of the people who got a viewer this weekend—or perhaps, like me, you bought one of the View-Master branded plastic versions for kicks—you might be wondering just what you can do with it.
That’s where this little overview comes in.
The NY Times VR app features a few smartly produced 360 video documentaries, and it’s that format of virtual reality content which is starting to really take off. It turns out that being able to “teleport” into a far off location can be immensely compelling, and filmmakers have begun to develop enough of the grammar of the form to tell stories.
Below you’ll find reviews of some of the apps that are available for Cardboard viewers on Apple’s iPhone platform. Almost all of the ones discussed below can be found in the Google Play store as well—and the Android platform actually has a lot more versatility when it comes to Cardboard apps. (Google is the one who is pushing this form, after all.)
All of the following apps are free, and I recommend using with nothing short of an iPhone 6.
VRSE (iTunes App Store)
Every conversation about Cardboard has to include—indeed pretty much has to start—with VRSE. Filmmaker Chris Milk’s VRSE.works has been creating stunning 360 video with a host of interesting clients and collaborators. Vice, The New York Times, big name rock acts, even Saturday Night Live. In fact it’s VRSEworks that is behind the crown jewel in the NYTVR app. The short documentary The Displaced.
The VRSE app itself is a kind of tour of the evolution of VR video. Start with Vice News’ piece from the Millions March. This was when correspondent Alice Speri was followed by Milk and crew as she reported from the middle of the protest over the death of Eric Garner in New York City in 2014. It’s early stuff but visceral and stunning. If you’ve been to NYC—or any large protest for that matter—you’ll feel like you are there. In this piece you can see Milk and his camera operator, but as you continue on through the videos the technical sophistication grows.
The U2 music video Song for Someone is nothing short of magical, and a virtuosic use of positional sound. Not only will you find yourself sitting a foot away from the band (a nightmare some, I know) but as the song goes on the scene fades into a handful of other locations, with other artists covering the song. Sometimes harmonizing with Bono and The Edge. All the while your attention is guided by the location of the sound.
That is if you are wearing wired headphones. This is where my one problem with the VRSE app lay. Unlike a lot of other apps VRSE doesn’t support bluetooth headsets. Maybe that’s a choice to prioritize video performance over streaming the audio, but it is a major bummer when it comes to using the View-Master branded viewer. There’s no headphone jack on that case, so that leaves you with the iPhone speaker doing all the work. Which defeats the whole “positional audio” thing.
Still, if you want the most bang for your buck—great videos for absolutely no money at all—then the VRSE app is your best bet. The app itself is a small download, but each video takes up almost half a gig of space. The quality of the videos, however, is unsurpassed.
JAUNT (iTunes App Store)
Jaunt VR is one of the major players in the VR space. They’ve recently inked a deal with Sundance to be the festival’s partner as it fosters the first generation of VR filmmakers. Jaunt was the first company to make waves for making a VR camera and stitching algorithm, but in the time since those initial announcements a lot of other players have jumped into the market.
The Jaunt app features a whole mess of videos. There are partnerships with news agencies (ABC News), magazines (InStyle), and Major League Baseball just to name a few recent collaborations.
Jaunt videos tend to feature more and faster cuts—fades, really—than VRSE productions. Every so often that can be disorienting, as I found with the InStyle video. (Or maybe that just had to do with the lifelong crush I’ve had on Drew Barrymore. I’m talking since kindergarten here, people.)
There’s also the matter of the artless way that Jaunt deals with the camera’s blind spot. While other VR filmmakers have started to take the time to fabricate a seamless illusion of the ground that their cameras are placed on, Jaunt has stuck with their original solution of dropping a giant logo at our (invisible) virtual feet. Sometimes with added branding. Yay.
That’s a quibble. Where the app really shines is in the content. Like a collaboration with ABC News that offers up a tour of Damascus in Syria. In spite of war the city remains a vibrant cultural center. The 360 video taken at some of the holiest sites in the city are made all the more poignant knowing that they are almost certainly at risk for destruction.
This kind of cultural preservation—to capture a living place in full surround—just wasn’t possible before now. It’s a justification of the development of the technology all on its own. Hopefully it will inspire people to want to preserve what they see, and not just become a record of what we lost.
The Jaunt App streams video as opposed to requiring a download. This puts the quality a bit below VRSE in terms of the final product, but the differences are not as great as you might imagine. Jaunt is definitely flexing the muscles of its core technologies. Also available: bluetooth headphone support, which is aces for immersion. There’s a bit of a lag when the audio is delivered that way, but one has to hope that future versions will fix this.
RYOT (iTunes App Store)
The RYOT app looks a bit like a less polished version of the VRSE app. So too, do the videos contained within. The one thing that RYOT has going for it over the VRSE app is that it allows for the use of Bluetooth enabled headphones.
RYOT has some interesting content partners as well. One.Org, the Associated Press, and the Sierra Club all have featured content and the emphasis on news and documentaries makes for some seriously compelling views.
IN360 (iTunes App Store)
Until Google goes ahead and updates the iOS YouTube app with the ability to play 360 video with Cardboard—one of the few things I’m jealous of Android users about—third party attempts like IN360 are what we are left with.
While not ideal by any stretch of the imagination, IN360 offers up a focused search engine that delivers 360 enabled video and skins it with simple controls. This makes viewing it with Cardboard a snap. It also offers modes that let the user swipe around the video, use the gyroscope in the phone, or see the whole thing wrapped in “little planet mode.” Think of it as the app we need, but not the one we deserve. But be thankful for it because—limited as it is—it does work.
If you know what you’re looking for on YouTube in 360 video then this is definitely an app you’ll want.
NYT VR (iTunes App Store)
If you are not one of the people who got a Cardboard viewer from The New York Times, you might want to go ahead and pick up this app. Even though some of the content is the same as in the VRSE app, The New York Times version of the player has a significant advantage: that’s right Bluetooth headphone support.
I cannot stress how much more immersive a good pair of noise canceling headphones makes the 360 video. It’s definitely a luxury item, but we are talking about one of the most impractical things in the universe: a folded up piece of cardboard that doubles as a teleportation device. So, you know, go big.
This is just the start of the VR video revolution… don’t even get me started talking about what light field capture is going to do to all this. What’s exciting is this: if you have an iPhone 6 or better you can play along at home for very little extra dough. I wouldn’t recommend trying these apps out with weaker phones. Poor framerate can induce headaches.