The New York Times Tours Pluto

(New York Times)
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The New York Times has done more than anyone, except maybe Google itself, to popularize the use of Cardboard VR. Last year the media giant sent out a million free Cardboard headsets to Sunday print subscribers, and this week another 300,000 go to digital subscribers, all meant to encourage viewing of the Times’ VR videos, including the newest one, Seeking Pluto's Frigid Heart.

Narrated by veteran Times science writer Dennis Overbye and produced in cooperation with space scientists, the seven-minute, 43-second video based on last July’s New Horizons flyby of Pluto is easily the best space-related VR video to date.

It opens with New Horizons closing in on Pluto, with renderings of the spacecraft by Dan Durda, a space artist who also happens to be a scientist on the project (so you know the model is faithful). We fly over the lovely ice-scapes of Pluto that enthralled millions of Internet viewers last summer. But in VR you also can turn around (by the way, the best way to watch these videos is in a swivel chair, or standing up) to look back at the distant sun, or watch the planet’s moon Charon rise over the horizon.

Two sequences set on the surface are what really highlight the value of VR in showing planetary images. Based on New Horizons data, with terrain modeling by researchers at the Lunar and Planetary Institute and Universities Space Research Association, this is about as real an approximation of what it would be like to stand on Pluto’s surface as you can get right now. Look down and you see snowy plains, with the sounds of ice cracking and shifting, and a few flakes gently falling. Look to your right, and there are the pink al-Idrisi ice mountains rising in 3-D.  Another sequence, set on the rim of Elliot crater, puts you in the middle of red-rock mountains. As Overbye says in his narration, “You’re standing where no known creature has ever stood.”

This is what separates the VR experience from ordinary video, even a well-produced TV documentary—that feeling of being in the scene, as if you really were there.  You can imagine Chesley Bonestell playing with this new medium if he were alive today.

Note: If playing the above video on your phone or clicking on the YouTube link don’t work, or you don’t see the cardboard icon at the bottom of the YouTube window, open the video directly in your phone’s YouTube app by tapping the “share” symbol [arrow], then the ... [three dots] symbol.  And be sure to set it for the highest quality.

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