In October, the New York Times launched its first immersive virtual reality (VR) application, creating an engaging new kind of journalism that suddenly, jarringly, placed viewers alongside the children displaced by Syria’s civil war. Through cardboard headsets packaged with subscribers’ Sunday Times, readers went from reading about a tragic event far away to experiencing it up close.

When new types of storytelling emerge, we inevitably seek to frame them in familiar terms, and that’s certainly been the case with virtual reality so far. A December editorial in the Times, for example, was quick to make a favorable comparison to cinema, proclaiming that VR was not just an empathy machine, but a “vehicle for enchantment.” In January, the Sundance Institute received more than 200 VR submissions in its New Frontiers category and eventually showcased 30 of them to wide acclaim. As Variety noted in a review, the conversation around VR shifted from a focus on the technology to the stories it could tell.

What’s extraordinary about VR is that it can be made by anyone with a smartphone. Applications such as Google’s Cardboard Camera can stitch together scenes into an immersive perspective. Story Spheres is a new app that enables anyone to add dialogue or even a soundtrack to a 360-degree “photosphere.” And with a cheap Google Cardboard set, originally developed as an inexpensive hack to frame a smartphone the proper distance from one’s face, software and hardware combine to make amazing things possible.

VR Tools

It would be easy for book and magazine publishers to dismiss VR as a gadget for the tech-obsessed. But that would be a mistake. Indeed, the Times’ VR launch was nothing short of transformative. The NYTVR app was the most successful and most downloaded app in the media company’s history. And where e-books so far have been imagined as little more than digital displays of text, VR suggests that the future of storytelling might lie in works that transform smartphones into books, integrating graphics, sounds, and network services (such as geolocation) into the narrative.

Inevitably, these interactive VR experiences will only become more entrancing, with the potential to create a new form of book—one that takes advantage of technology to present, for example, alternative story threads under the control of readers, with layers of audio, video, and text creating mood, and shaping experiences. Startups such as Oolipo are already working with experienced cross-media authors such as Kate Pullinger in the U.K. to build immersive stories. And as Tom Uglow of Google’s Creative Lab has noted of the company’s innovative e-book partnership, Editions at Play, this kind of development remains “more about writers and the power of words and narrative than anything else,” and can actually serve as a bulwark against the erosion of the literary form.

To some, these tentative forays into rich interaction might seem like random sets of interesting experiences, perhaps worth dabbling in, but not necessarily indicative of anything larger. Yes, there are obstacles. For example, there’s still no real constancy to the tools used to create—much less read—interactive or multimedia books. But the main reason the Kindle was able to singlehandedly reshape the nascent e-book market in 2007, (which, at the time, had also been struggling through a variety of formats, devices, and applications) was because Amazon had married an e-book format with an extensive online inventory, capable of being read on a mass-produced, reasonably cheap device. And while that hasn’t extended to what the publishing industry calls enhanced books, VR is different.

In fact, there already exists a range of tools available for creating VR imagery (including Android and Apple smartphones); software to stitch together images, sound, and narrative effects are also becoming widely available, often for free. And the hardware for enjoying VR is already in people’s hands: their smartphones. And, like the Kindle, there will be at least one widely available platform: Google Cardboard (and likely more). Already, almost every software production tool is capable of outputting VR that will run on Google Cardboard—and Google’s early-mover advantage in this space could be just as telling as Amazon’s foray into digital reading.

For publishers, it would be a mistake to ignore this new form because it is not booklike. Rather, they should embrace this new medium, and help authors create new works for it.

Peter Brantley is the online strategy director of libraries at the Unviersity of California–Davis and a contributing editor to PW.