I Watched The Debate in Virtual Reality. Things Got Weird
The first Democratic debate is five minutes from over. Each candidate is delivering their closing arguments, given 90 seconds each to explain why they should be president. Right as Bernie Sanders is winding toward what seems to be a rousing climax, an error message pops up in front of my face. My phone has overheated, the Oculus software says, and the Gear VR headset needs to take a break while it cools down.
So I wait. I stare at the frozen screen, Sanders’ arm mid-gesticulation, because what else am I going to look at? I’m wearing a virtual reality headset. I can’t even see my hands, much less find my phone to putter around Twitter for a minute.
A few minutes later, the stream comes back. I’ve moved, apparently. Now I’m on stage, the debate’s over, and I’m watching the aftermath. I watch Hillary Clinton and Sanders giving interviews, then watch as the TV cameras shut off as the CNN reporters go bounding into the audience to gather quotes. Then I move again. Now I’m perched high above the stage, watching from behind. I see Martin O’Malley wander back behind his lectern, grab the mug he’s been slyly drinking from all night, and walk off stage like he’s stolen something.
Watching a debate in virtual reality is weird.
The Beltway on Your Face
Last night, CNN aired the first Democratic debate of the 2016 election to millions of TV viewers, and to an indeterminate but undoubtedly much smaller population of virtual-reality headset owners. CNN worked with a California company called NextVR, which is building a live-broadcast infrastructure for the VR community. Together, through Oculus’s software and Samsung’s hardware, they brought a real-time broadcast to face-computer-wearing viewers everywhere.
To view the debate, you had to own a Samsung Gear VR, which means you had to own one of a small handful of Samsung phones. Then you had to figure out how to install, update, and run all the right apps at the right time. (Heaven help you if this was your first time using the Gear VR.) Once it got rolling, though, the stream was pretty smooth.
A presidential debate is a high-stakes place to run your first experiment, but NextVR co-founder DJ Roller says that’s exactly the point. He wants people to know about virtual reality, about its potential as a live, breaking-news medium. “It’s really about the promise of VR is to put people in places they wish they could go, or maybe couldn’t go. And what better place to do that than with news?”
NextVR’s goal is to make adding VR into a TV broadcast totally trivial. “We can walk into any broadcast environment and just plug right in,” he says, “because we’re built on this broadcast infrastructure.” For the debate, they set up Red cameras around the Wynn Hotel auditorium in Las Vegas, each offering a different vantage point for viewers.
For two hours, I was periodically teleported between four camera locations: the far back right of the room; up front, right next to the moderators; the wings off to stage right; and a sort of bird’s-eye-view from behind the candidates. Talking to Roller and CNNMoney executive producer Jason Farkas, who helmed the project for CNN, I get the sense they wanted many more. And they wanted them to be closer than the TV setup would allow.
You can’t see the VR infrastructure if you’re tuning into CNN on your Westinghouse, but I could see the whole production from the Gear VR. Cameras moving, sound guys in the back, the lighting rig above the candidates, all in plain view. This, Farkas says, is part of the fun. “We’re not looking to hide the TV aspect in virtual reality, that’s part of the show.” It’s also, he points out, what you’d see if you were in the audience.
The most obvious takeaway from the debate was that virtual reality just isn’t good enough yet. Everyone looked like faceless holograms, and the whole set felt glossy and fake. It was like being in Disney World’s Hall of Presidents, watching a bunch of animatronic not-quite-people reenacting historical events. All that stuff will get better quickly, of course—Samsung phones aren’t even the cutting edge of VR tech now. More importantly, we need to figure out the right way to shoot and show virtual reality news.
We’ve spent decades developing norms and languages for film and television, but all the rules are different for VR. On TV, going from Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders and back in rapid succession doesn’t bother anyone.
“In virtual reality,” Farkas says, “if you cut that quickly, you will quickly disorient and totally confuse the viewer, because they’ll feel like they’re being transported every four seconds. So you have to cut more deliberately, and a lot more slowly so that you don’t disorient them.”
Then there are the existential questions. Is watching the news in virtual reality supposed to mimic a view from a seat, or should you be free to roam? Should it feel like TV, complete with graphics and announcers and all the cool things you can do on a screen? How much should it move? Where should it be? What does the pace of the broadcast look like? How do you make sure people are seeing what’s important? Nobody knows the answers yet. Part of the advantage of VR, of course, is that viewers can decide for themselves.
“If they’re doing a close-up on one candidate,” Roller says, “I could independently in VR could be looking at another candidate. Maybe it’s the candidate I’m interested in. And I could see them doing something, or taking notes, or however they respond to a question.”
I spent a lot of time watching the way the candidates reacted to one another, thanks to the full-size view I’d never had before. I’d never seen the way Anderson Cooper uses his hands to signal they want to move on, or how each candidate subtly let him know they had something to say. Clinton would always turn toward whoever was talking, and Sanders was constantly raising his hand like an overly eager first-grader. Jim Webb, meanwhile, stared intently and straight ahead the whole time. And I’m not sure Chafee ever moved a muscle except when he was talking.
Eventually, Roller says, you’ll have much more control over your experience. You’ll be able to focus only on the person you want, or fix yourself to a single spot and watch. Yet he also thinks there’s real value in a produced and directed feed. Some people just want to show up and be entertained. “So here’s this produced feed,” he says, “and you just want to get moved around—like getting moved around to the six best seats in the house.”
What We Watch When We Watch TV
I was probably more immersed in last night’s debate than any other I’ve ever watched. How could I not be? There was nothing else to do, grab, or look at. I was like a disembodied set of eyes, in the crowd at the Wynn.
Yet even being so so laser-focused on the five candidates (and the bald head of the guy in front of that one camera in the back), I feel like I missed a lot. I missed Donald Trump live-tweeting the debate, and Mike Huckabee saying insane things. I missed the conversation on Facebook, and all the funny things my friends were saying. I missed the real-time fact-checking some publications do. A debate is about so much more than a TV show now; it’s about how we all experience it and interact with it, together.
Roller says NextVR is working on ways to integrate graphics, social media, and even broadcasters into the stream. He thinks that when it works right, virtual reality can combine the best of being there with the best of TV, all in a single experience.
“Ultimately, we have the ability to have people go to the debate,” he says, “where you’re at your house and I’m at my house, but we’re both watching the debate together from better than a front-row seat. And we’re able to stop it, and start it, and ultimately—hey, did you see someone do that? And then rewind and see it again.”
Forget Twitter—what if we were all there, at the Wynn, together in the audience? Someday, I think, virtual reality will enable that. But there’s a long way to go. The screen resolution, the camera setup, the entire industry’s understanding of how virtual reality is supposed to work when it’s streamed live to everyone’s face-computer. Oh, and one more thing: It needs to not overheat my phone right in the middle of closing arguments.
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