New York Times
Credit: Joe Shlabotnik on Facebook. Some rights reserved.

The New York Times will launch a new free mobile app to showcase virtual reality stories, the news outlet announced on Tuesday.

The app will be available from 5 November for iOS and Android. As part of the project, NYT will also distribute Google Cardboard virtual reality viewers with the print newspaper on 7 and 8 November.

"We believe in the future of this technology," said Jake Silverstein, editor in chief, The New York Times Magazine.

"I wouldn't say that we have crystal clarity on what the future looks like and exactly how frequent and how big a part of our daily reports virtual reality will become.

"[But] we wanted to enter the space in a way that will enable us to continue to produce work going forward."

The app, called NYT VR, launches with two films available to viewers, as well as content from advertisers.

NYT VR's first offering is a report on the global refugee crisis which aims to highlight the resilience of children uprooted by war.

The film, called The Displaced, was created by The New York Times Magazine in partnership with Chris Milk of Vrse. It aims to allow viewers to experience the story in a way that would have previously been out of reach.

Silverstein told working with VR has been "really eye-opening".

"You can imagine the ways in which putting viewers in the location and making [them] feel as if they are actually there can not just enhance a story, but can really change the way that you would tell it.

"It's been very interesting from an editorial standpoint."

NYT will also make the The Displaced available as a traditional video on its website. Silverstein admits the downside to virtual reality as a storytelling tool is the limited numbers of people who have access to it at present.

"It was very important to us that the film be widely available on a variety of platforms, so that we would reach a large audience," he said.

"This is a common problem for emerging technologies… the distribution and the scale are hard to achieve.

"Our distribution of Cardboard with the physical newspaper will help address that, but still you'll have to actually have a smartphone, you'll have to be able to download the app, you have to download the film, you'll have to have the time and commitment to put it all together."

The app will also support 360-degree videos and is designed to make the experience user-friendly on a touchscreen device.

News outlets have increasingly experimented with virtual reality and 360 videos in the last year, with Vice News putting together a live broadcast in VR in January for example, and more recently, The Washington Post publishing a sneak peek inside the Democratic debate spin room in 360.

The launch of an app dedicated to VR highlights a commitment to this technology at NYT, and Silverstein hopes it will prompt more people to think of virtual reality as an important format for news.

"I believe that most people still perceive it as a gaming platform and we haven't yet reached the point where people understand its power as a journalistic tool," he said.

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