The New York Times virtual-reality app takes you to deep space, to the front lines in Falluja, or to artist's studios. But once you have stepped inside these worlds, it's not clear what you are supposed to do there.
Late last year, the New York Times launched a VR app to host videos shot in the visual equivalent of surround sound: “These immersive videos put you at the center of the scene”, the paper declared in its announcement, “allowing you to look left, right, up, down and behind you”. This seems a stubbornly literalist approach to telling all sides of a story. But the point of these videos in the round isn’t to make viewers more rounded; it is, as they say, “to put you at the center of the scene” just for the sake of it – as if self-centeredness were a novel thrill and not just one’s ordinary experience of consciousness.
The VR stories, which you can watch by placing your phone inside a cardboard contraption and holding it up to your face, are conceived as “experiences”, which in practice means they emphasize visuals over information. Scrolling through the gallery of videos in the app, you are frequently invited to “step inside a world”. One allows you to look out from atop the World Trade Center, another sends you into space. Several place you in an artist’s studio. One is a cartoon rendering of the Korean demilitarized zone. One forces you to endure laughter yoga.
But once you have stepped inside these worlds, it’s not clear what you are supposed to do there. In Absorption and Theatricality (1976), art historian Michael Fried describes the lengths to which eighteenth-century French painters went to evoke a sense of absorption. Critics and painters, he argues, were acutely attuned to the difficulties of paying attention, and how rare an accomplishment it was to feel absorbed in an activity.
The Times’s VR app proposes that immersion requires no special skill at all; becoming “immersed in a world” is as easy as becoming immersed in water – just jump in! Yet I found myself drowning in inessential detail. It’s generally clear what you are supposed to hold in the frame (floating text or voice-over details provide cues), but the temptation to look away is ever present, not because there’s anything else worth seeing but just because you can.
It’s as if the videos try to internalize the viewers’ distractability – rather than click away to something else more interesting, I’d just look around impatiently, like I was stuck in line while simultaneously sailing through the front lines at Falluja, or the mountains of Sudan.
The app seemed mainly to log my boredom, measured in how often I turned pointlessly to the panoramic sky.
The way the videos force viewers to decide where to look feels counterproductive: If, in my total ignorance, I am expected to choose where to focus my attention, then what there is to see must be extremely superficial – merely interesting surfaces to gaze at from different perspectives.
Many of the pieces on the app appear to be advocacy journalism, which you would expect to be very deliberate in directing readers’ attention. But the VR format makes me feel like I should ignore whatever they want to show me and indulge my limited amount of agency within the app instead. The news doesn’t typically make room for such viewer agency. If what’s being reported inspires you to act, you have to perform those actions in the world, and usually without a cardboard box strapped to your head.
Sometimes proponents of VR tout its ability to encourage empathy by allowing viewers to see things through other people’s eyes. But the Times app makes immersion in other people’s experience feel more like sadism, as my willful indifference is superimposed on whatever encounter the filmmakers are trying to make me have. Every time I turn my head and look somewhere else for the hell of it, I feel as if I was overwriting and obviating the experience I am supposed to be sharing.
Fried argues that, to indulge beholders’ fantasies of transcendence, painters developed conventional strategies – what he calls a “fully realized tableau” – to convey the obliviousness of the painted figures to their being watched: “Only by establishing the fiction of his absence or nonexistence could his actual placement before and enthrallment by the painting be secured.” The beholder becomes a new sort of subject, “whose innermost nature would consist precisely in the conviction of his absence from the scene of representation.”
VR seems like the culmination of this effort: The illusion of transcendence is immediately palpable, far stronger than any sense of “really being there”. You feel untouchable, like a ghost alighting on a scene you are incapable of changing, safe from harm, as if you’ve never really existed.
ROB HORNING is an editor of Real Life magazine. He lives in New York.