A Virtual Reality Debate Is Basically as Fun as a Real-Life Debate
VR was a fun gimmick for the Democratic presidential debate, but it wasn’t quite the transformative experience you may be lead to believe.
Image: Cariss Rogers/Flickr
You know, you really haven't lived until you've seen Bernie Sanders slam the media in virtual reality over its handling of the Hillary Clinton email scandal.
CNN last night broadcast the first Democratic presidential debate of the season, and did so in VR. The broadcast, as the network was all too happy to trumpet a few weeks ago, was the first-ever live broadcast in history to stream simultaneously in VR.
Produced in conjunction with VR firm NextVR, viewers needed a Samsung Gear VR headset to watch Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and some other candidates (but not Lawrence Lessig) hash it out over topics like gun control, the minimum wage, and what the US strategy should be in confronting the Islamic State.
Samsung, which was not involved in the production of the debate, loaned Motherboard a Gear VR and Galaxy S6 so we could watch the proceedings live, like so:
To me, the greatest knock against the experience was its failure to transport viewers to a place they have never or may never in the future see first-hand; odds are you've sat in the audience of an auditorium and watched people talk to each other on stage. No, you may never have seen first-hand Anderson Cooper attempt to calm down a cheering audience, but this is hardly as demonstrative of VR's potential as, say, blasting aliens on Mars, or taking a virtual tour of the Great Wall of China, or virtually walking around the Eiffel Tower. A well-mannered debate may not be the most immersive showcase of VR, in other words.
NextVR, which produced the VR debate for CNN, did its best to cycle through different camera angles to give viewers a sense of location: vantage points included "standing" a few feet to the side moderator Anderson Cooper and "standing" a few feet in front and behind the candidates. From every camera angle, viewers could then turn their head up and down and side to side to pan around the room.
While the overall experience worked as advertised, it was perhaps too clunky for true mainstream acceptance. For one, the image quality was on the blurry side, with candidates' physical features difficult to make out. I can put it best in terms of the Metal Gear Solid video game: if watching in HD is like playing Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain in terms of graphical fidelity, then watching in VR was like playing the original Metal Gear Solid from 1998. The Gear VR was also rather uncomfortable to wear with my glasses on, forcing me to put on contact lenses. The VR app was a battery killer, too, with 15 percent of the Galaxy S6's battery depleting per 30 minutes. A new Gear VR, due next month, may address some if these issues.
VR, neat as it was, did nothing to mask the sheer eye-rolling mundanity of the debate: the Democratic candidates are all in favor of reforming Wall Street, and they're all in favor of stricter gun laws. That's terrific, thanks. Unfortunately, VR can't yet transmit the electricity that must have been flowing through the room when Bernie Sanders came to Hillary Clinton's assistance over the media's handling over her ongoing private email server scandal.
CNN's plans for VR remain unclear. CNN Executive Producer Jason Farkas told Motherboard that VR goes hand-in-hand with the network's shows like Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, potentially giving viewers the opportunity to "see what it's like being in Havana." But given that VR and its cousin, augmented reality, are projected to generate some $150 billion by 2020, don't be too surprised to see it and other media outlets continue to experiment with the technology.
"Most people haven't used VR before," said Fargas. "CNN is known for live news events, and we wanted to give viewers an entirely new way to see history in the making."
As for the Gear VR, it's the product of a partnership between Samsung and Oculus VR, the Facebook-owned company spearheading VR (and prompting fun covers of Time magazine in the process). The idea behind the unit, which can be found for as low as $99, is to lower the barrier to entry to VR: rather than needing a $1,000 PC to power the experience like you do with an Oculus Rift, Gear VR is instead powered by a Galaxy smartphone that's plopped into the unit. It's a concept that companies like Google and Microsoft are also experimenting with.
But tell me you wouldn't just love watching Donald Trump's hair sway majestically in VR. Now there's a killer app.