Common Sense Review
Updated December 2015

NYT VR - Virtual Reality Stories from the NYTimes

Immersive 360-degree videos take users inside the headlines
Common Sense Rating 3
Teacher Rating
Not Yet Rated
  • NYT VR is a virtual reality app from the New York Times.
  • There are a range of stories from the New York Times and from some of its sponsors, such as GE and Mini.
  • Select a story from the main menu, then download or stream it to your device.
  • Captions appear in multiple places, allowing you to read while you explore.
  • Within the story, you can look up, down, and all around, following people into public and private spaces.
  • The experience is astonishingly immersive and can be emotionally powerful.
Beautiful imagery and smart captions take users inside rich visual experiences and make it almost impossible to look away.
A bit more information to orient users could help demystify and add context to the experience.
Bottom Line
Though there isn't much explicit learning content, there's immense value in the extraordinary opportunity to take a walk in someone else's world.
Patricia Monticello Kievlan
Common Sense Reviewer
Foundation/Non-Profit Member
Common Sense Rating 3
Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return? 5

It doesn't get much more immersive than this: Go inside the worlds of others from around the world, wander the streets of New York, or take a trip to the border and see the world through someone else's eyes.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer? 3

While this tool won't teach specific content knowledge, it can be an excellent starting point for a variety of lessons or a conversation about empathy and perspective taking.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students? 3

While it's easy to get started, a bit more orientation (and -- for some -- encouragement to sit, not stand) would be a big help.

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How Can Teachers Use It?

Keep in mind that these experiences come packaged in large files; it can take some time to download the stories, so plan ahead accordingly. Streaming is also an option -- if you have the bandwidth. Once you've got the stories loaded, dive in and try to station students in chairs that allow them to pivot and spin. That way they'll be able to explore the entire environment within each video.

Ask students to recount and describe what they saw in each video. What surprised them? How was the world they experienced like their own, and how was it different? If they encountered kids from elsewhere in the world, how were those kids different from them? How were they the same? Ask students to consider what kind of 360-degree experience of their own they might film. What would be interesting to share? What would you want to show to other kids from elsewhere in the world? Mostly, help students consider and examine what life might be like for people far away who aren't so different from them after all.

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What's It Like?

NYT VR is the New York Times' virtual reality viewing app. Download the app, then browse the available experiences: The first ones launched include an 11-minute video called "The Displaced" that featured the stories of three children whose families were displaced by war and conflict in Africa, the Middle East, and eastern Europe. Other videos take users inside a walk through New York City or on a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. There are also experiences created for advertisers including BMW Mini and GE. 

The experiences can be downloaded, which can take some time, or -- if you have the bandwidth -- streamed. From there, choose whether you'll use your device with or without a VR viewer (such as Google Cardboard). Either way, you'll want to use headphones. The experience will be viewable in all directions, and as you move your device you'll essentially see a 360-degree video while the narration plays. When text appears, it appears at three points in the experience -- to the left, to the right, and directly behind you -- so you'll catch the captions and subtitles no matter how you're oriented in the experience. The experiences run roughly between two and 11 minutes in length.

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Is It Good For Learning?

It's probably best not to have students try this standing up. If standing, they're likely to wander into a corner or stumble over a desk. Sitting on rotating stools, or even on the floor, might be the best way for students to experience the app. If you or your students haven't experienced VR before, it tends to be more immersive than many people expect. Some of the experiences can be emotionally affecting -- for example, as you find yourself standing beside a child as he runs through a refugee camp or perches on a wall near an old Soviet monument. There are some moments when viewers can catch the camera operator, which is surprisingly exciting and emotionally impressive on its own, serving as a reminder that you've immersed yourself so completely in someone else's world.

With all that in mind, the app isn't designed for classroom use, but with some creativity, you can make it fit. If you do, go for the engaging human-interest stories and avoid the advertisements. For educators, it would be great if NYT VR offered some peripheral lesson resources about perspective-taking and empathy -- at present teachers will be on their own to provide students with this kind of context. Take the time to incorporate some thoughtful discussion before and after using the app, and it could become a great way to provoke some thoughtful, in-depth discussions with your class.

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See how teachers are using NYT VR - Virtual Reality Stories from the NYTimes