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The Democratic Debate In VR Was Novel–For About 3 Minutes

No one has presented a major debate in VR before. That doesn’t mean tonight’s CNN presentation was the way to do it.

The Democratic Debate In VR Was Novel–For About 3 Minutes
[Photo: courtesy of CNN]

Tuesday night’s CNN Democratic presidential debate was touted as perhaps the first-ever live news broadcast in VR. In the end, it was hardly a defining event that will make virtual reality a phenomenon millions of people want to experience.

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Put together by NextVR solely for Samsung’s Gear VR—which is powered by Facebook-owned Oculus’s software—the debate showcased live, wide-angle views of the five “major” 2016 Democratic candidates for president of the United States. Watching the VR version of the debate, you could see a 180-degree view of the candidates from one of three different cameras placed in the debate hall.

It’s hard to know what might have made the VR experience a winner. Virtual reality, as a way to present a full, rich view of live—or recorded—events holds great promise. That’s true for concerts, sporting events, or extreme action sports like BASE jumping: by turning your head, you can see what’s going on all around you. But I found tonight’s VR debates uninspiring after the first few novel minutes of watching the five candidates from a number of different angles.

Our frustrated reporter during tonight’s debate.Photo: Kathleen Craig

Here’s what I saw when I logged in: Three separate looks at the five candidates, with producers switching those looks every couple of minutes (while viewers could not change camera angles during tonight’s debates, NextVR has made that possible during other live events). One was a low shot from the candidates’ left. Another was a high shot from above and behind them. And finally, there was a view from their right side. The one from the rear was perhaps the most interesting, since you could see the entire audience, as well as the back of each candidate’s head. Sanders is not the only one with a bald spot.

But the view was fuzzy. Moderator Anderson Cooper never looked as crisp and clear as he would on TV or on the web, something a number of my Fast Company colleagues would no doubt have been disappointed by. And this, again, makes me question whether watching a debate in VR is really the most interesting way to witness it.

Some people may disagree with me. For example, Twitter user Howard Kim tweeted that the debate “is a rare but a great example where [virtual reality] is actually better than TV and I’m super stoked about it.”

And Twitter user Fergus Pitt thought the VR presentation offered a “great view of the Standing O for Bernie Sanders laying into media focus on Clinton’s email.”

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Gartner analyst Brian Blau was also impressed. “Politics aside,” he tweeted, “a significant live event, famous faces, in 3D & in VR…transforming!”

Perhaps. To me, there’s a lot of room to improve here. Maybe there should be more cameras. Or maybe NextVR and its partner, CNN, should offer a full 360-degree view, rather than the 180-degree view they provided. The cameras certainly exist for such an enterprise.

NextVR would not say how many people watched the debate in VR, telling me that information is not public. My guess, given how few tweets I found using the official hashtag, #DemDebateVR, is that not many people slipped on their headsets for tonight’s debate. It’s also worth noting that even getting into the VR version of the debate was quite difficult, as chronicled here. I had a similar experience but thanks to help from NextVR’s Helen Situ, I was at long last able to get it to work, but only after an extremely unintuitive workaround.

(I also wonder: Do more Democrats than Republicans have VR headsets?)

Perhaps I’m just jaded. I want things like this to be a few years ahead of where they are, and I’ll admit that I should probably be happy that someone is willing to put their time and energy—and money—behind a VR version of a major national debate.

VR will surely be commonplace at some point in the future, and someone has to work out the kinks. Still, I want more–and I’ll probably get it soon. Today, the Gear VR is the only major virtual reality headset on the market. But between now and election day 2016, the Oculus Rift and other VR hardware will become available, likely bringing in large numbers of new users, and providing more incentive for content creators to make more and better VR experiences. Maybe that would include the picture being clear enough to see any wizards in the debate hall, which definitely wasn’t the case Tuesday night.

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About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications

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