Google Cardboard's Partnership with NYT Shows Us Another Side of Virtual Reality

Posted by | October 26, 2015 | News | No Comments
Google CardboardGoogle's DIY solution to VR headsets, Google Cardboard.

Google’s Cardboard virtual reality is going to be shipped out to a million homes in the November 7 issue of the “New York Times.”

The cardboard headsets will go out with the physical copy of the “Times,” while established digital subscribers and Times Insiders will also get copies.

It’s another move by Google to spread Cardboard VR as far as possible, despite its little-guy status in the VR world. Among high-tech headsets like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, the Cardboard is…well, cardboard. And you can make it yourself.


Google Cardboard turns your smartphone into a virtual-reality device. It originally launched on Android but is now available for iOS as well. Your phone slides into the cardboard headset, and with a free app you can cycle through some of Google Cardboard’s VR experiences, like touring Versailles.

But the Times experience is a little different. They’re sending out the cardboard headsets so that subscribers can watch a documentary film called “The Displaced” in virtual reality courtesy of a New York Times VR app. The app itself launches on November 5, and if you already have Google Cardboard you can view the film yourself on that date. It’s available for iOS and Android.

It’s not the first time that politics and virtual reality have crossed paths; most recently the Democratic debate was viewable through Gear VR. Cardboard is a little different, however, simply because of its accessibility. The Times app will be free, as is the regular Google Cardboard app. Building a headset of your own doesn’t cost more than the pizza box you’ll do it with. The problem Google is confronting with Cardboard is visibility.

Well, visibility and content. Higher-priced VR systems like PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, or Valve’s HTC Vive are being pushed as platforms for video games. The Oculus Rift has prototyped controllers which make your hands visible in the game.

Google Cardboard’s efforts have been considerably more academic. They announced Google Expeditions earlier this October. Expeditions is a virtual reality field trip which will be available in select schools. The Expeditions Pioneer program will ship all the supplies to teachers free of charge.

Google’s Mike Jazayeri, who is Director of Project Management for VR, told Wired.com that they “didn’t want to do something that was just a gimmick or a one-off.”

Virtual reality, “needs to go beyond just demos and gimmicks and into actual, consistent episodic experiences that draw the viewer back again and again.”

A commitment to VR news content would be something entirely new for The Times, and for news coverage in general. As Jazayeri said, despite voracious interest in virtual reality it’s still very far from becoming part of our lives in any meaningful way. And before people invest in something as large as the Oculus, they might very well like to try out the free VR they can get on their phones.

The New York Times is releasing more VR shorts in December and later in 2016, says Jake Silverstein, Editor-in-Chief of the magazine. Previously, the times had released a VR video about the making of their April 26 cover. That film will also be viewable in the app.

This particular partnership is interesting because it gives some context to the existence of Google Cardboard. Cardboard is a system that seems like an also-ran next to bigger VR systems, but the partnership with the Times makes me think that maybe we shouldn’t be holding Cardboard up to other VR devices at all. In terms of market, they’re not even competing for the same slice of the pie.

The New York Times partnership implies that no matter what Google’s plans are for Cardboard, this is a device that is intended to bring depth and entertainment to education, rather than to entertain for its own sake. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but Cardboard has its feet heavily planted in the physical world, in cultural contexts, and in history.

If this is the path that Google is carving out for Cardboard, we should be paying attention.

Simone de Rochefort

About Simone de Rochefort

Simone de Rochefort is a game journalist, writer, podcast host, and video producer who does a prolific amount of Stuff. You can find her on Twitter @doomquasar, and hear her weekly on tech podcast Rocket, as well as Pixelkin's Gaming With the Moms podcast. With Pixelkin she produces video content and devotes herself to Skylanders with terrifying abandon.