The most impressive part of this five-minute audio was when I heard someone giving me a haircut. This was part humorous and part thrilling. I sincerely believed someone was just millimeters from nicking my ear. I recall slowly moving my head away from the imaginary scissors, while my dad chuckled next to me—likely because he was doing exactly the same thing I was.
While Disney is known for its innovations and creating immersive experiences, what strikes me about this exhibit—now that I’m older and have had time to reflect upon it—was its simplicity. The usual Disney fare involves sights, sounds, touch, smells, motion—creating imaginary worlds by affecting all of your senses. But by appealing to just one of the senses, Soundsations made me believe I was R.J. McBean on my first day on the job. Beyond Disney’s speakers, there was no need for special hardware or screens or any other intermediary interface. I simply had to close my eyes.
Fast forward more than 25 years and now every industry is using virtual reality—from the military and healthcare to sports and fashion. Recently, The New York Times Magazine (The Times) launched NYT VR, a mobile app “that can be used—along with your headphones and, optionally, a cardboard viewing device—to simulate richly immersive scenes from across the globe.” 
The Times initially launched this app with a short film, “The Displaced,” about three children from South Sudan, Ukraine, and Lebanon who were driven from their homes because of war and persecution.
In this column, I’m going to provide my experience assessment of The Times’ NYT VR and describe whether, for me, it achieved what editor Jake Silverstein calls “an uncanny feeling of connection with people whose lives are far from our own.” 
Before I walk you through using NYT VR, it’s important that I explain what I’d expected from this experience. When using new technologies and products, I’m very focused on my needs and am often highly skeptical. This does not mean I’m not open minded, but that I have a keen self-awareness about what I’ll find valuable and what I won’t. I’ll loyally use something new if it’s a complement to the way I live—not just another thing to own or do. While this can be frustrating to others around me—for example, I’ve never joined Facebook—it makes me pretty good at what I do for a living: understanding what experiences different people will want out of a product or service.
I also recognize that, sometimes, people use new technologies just for fun, and this was my perspective when using NYT VR. But even when it’s just for fun, people, myself included, still have expectations of using a new product or service. Descriptive phrases like “richly immersive,” “uncanny feeling of connection,” and “a new form of storytelling” made me expect an experience similar to the one that made Soundsations so amazing and memorable. For example:
- I wanted to forget where I was and feel as though I was in the story, seeing it firsthand.
- Any intermediary user interface should feel invisible to me.
- I should feel something for the characters in the story—feel connected to them and their world.
- The experience should be simple and unencumbered.
It’s also important to note that The Times indicated, “You can use the app on its own. But the experience is even better with a special virtual reality viewer.” Because I didn’t have a VR viewer, I tempered my expectations slightly. The Times was telling me that, while the cardboard VR viewer is optional, it will make the experience even more impressive.  These expectations provide context for what I was thinking when using NYT VR.
My First Viewing: Watching “The Displaced” Without a VR Viewer
I have an iPhone. The installation of the NYT VR app was easy. I downloaded the app, opened it, and indicated whether I had a viewer. Once the film downloaded, I immediately played it and, as an image of a young boy appeared on the screen, I quickly turned off the lights in my living room. I did this because the The Times had built up the experience so much that I wanted to become as deeply immersed in the film as possible and avoid distractions.
What instantly struck me was that turning the phone afforded me a 360-degree, panoramic view of the boy’s environment. I saw both the boy and everything he was seeing in his surroundings. That was certainly impressive. And, much as with Soundsations, I found myself conflating my own reality with that of the film, so I turned my whole body 360 degrees instead of just turning the phone or my head. For the first few seconds, I sincerely felt as though I had forgotten where I was and wanted to turn my body to see more to the right or the left of where the boy was. This instinctual behavior was certainly a strong indication of the immersiveness The Times had promised.
But, after those initial seconds, white subtitles began appearing over the film to communicate what the boy was saying. Because I could turn to see a 360-degree view, the same subtitles needed to appear many times across the film’s panoramic view. Sometimes, I couldn’t read them very well if the white text was over the sky or something with a lot of detail. Pretty quickly, I began to find small usability issues with the format, and I started taking screenshots. So I stopped the film, asking myself: couldn’t I refrain from making a usability critique for just eleven minutes so I could watch the film?
On one hand, it felt ridiculous that my first instinct was to begin finding user experience flaws that marred this new technology, as well as the execution of this new journalistic approach. This was, after all, a story about three children and their experiences being refugees. Surely, my self-aggrandizing usability critique could not compare to the content of their life stories.
On the other hand, I didn’t want to start evaluating the user interface. I wanted to be so immersed in the story that font colors and text alignment wouldn’t even be noticeable. But perhaps it wasn’t fair to expect NYT VR to make me forget who and where I was. Having an immersive experience didn’t mean I had amnesia. So I decided I would start over, and, this time, I wouldn’t take screenshots. I would simply watch the film.