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Streaming the Debate in Virtual Reality Means Little for VR, Could Mean a Lot for Politics and Media

Watching the debate in virtual reality was boring. That doesn't mean the idea of politics and VR are DOA.

James Temple / Re/code

Going into the first televised presidential debate in late September of 1960, John F. Kennedy was trailing Richard Nixon in national polls by six points.

Nixon, afflicted with a bad cold, neither practiced hard nor slept well. He was also skeptical that the debate mattered all that much, telling a journalist that television’s “novelty [had] worn off” since the 1952 election. Though many agreed that Nixon narrowly lost the debate, viewers watching at home thought they saw a crushing defeat. The big lesson from this, supposedly, is that politicians would be wise not to screw up in front of a TV camera.

I thought about this while staring at the life-sized action figure standing in front of me during tonight’s presidential debate. Wearing a Samsung Gear VR goggle, livestreaming the debate on the Oculus-powered virtual reality headset, that’s what the candidates looked like. A series of cheap-looking G.I. Joes spread out across the stage, whose facial features and most defining human characteristics were difficult to make out.

The specter of Nixon and his rapid change of fortune hangs over every presidential debate, even though they usually fail to deliver. That’s why it initially seemed surprising that the Democrats would let CNN and NextVR livestream tonight’s debate on virtual reality, with sweeping, 180-degree views from multiple angles on the stage.

Fortunately for CNN, which expected low audience numbers, the debate was very boring, so the VR didn’t add or take away much from the performance of the plastic-looking toy soldiers facing Anderson Cooper.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the only two candidates of the five onstage who really mattered, were most visible because they were in the center of my field of vision almost all the time. Sanders’s usually buoyant hairdo was reduced to a pixellated grey and white, but he shouted and gesticulated a lot so it was not hard to pick him out. Clinton, by virtue of being the only woman and the most colorfully dressed out of everyone onstage (she was wearing a dark blue pantsuit), was also easily identifiable.

The Gear VR headset itself is a pretty simple object. You attach a Samsung Galaxy or Note phone to the device and plug in headphones. The Galaxy I was using overheated several times, and I had to quit watching to let it cool off when that happened. The battery burned pretty quickly, but that didn’t really matter because it’s tough to use the headset for more than 30 or 40 minutes at a time anyway.

All in all, the Gear VR made me feel like I was transported inside a CNN chyron. The cameras placed me at different angles near corners of the stage and behind the candidates. The only thing you can really do is stare at the debate set, audience, the candidates and Anderson Cooper. Because Democratic infighting is like people poking one another with toothpicks, the whole thing was like a very disappointing, high school civics class version of “Tron.”

The bloodlessness of the livestream was by design. In Re/code’s debate liveblog, my colleague Eric Johnson noted that for NextVR, the startup that partnered with CNN to put on the VR broadcast, the event was more of a “low-stakes audition” for its technology than anything else. Startups like NextVR and Jaunt want to stream stuff like soccer games or arena concerts, for which they could ultimately charge users a fee for accessing what’s hyped as the next best thing to getting an IRL front-row seat.

News organizations and other media companies are already taking virtual reality very seriously, and they are surely thinking bigger than tepid, early-stage presidential debates. Given how quickly platforms like Facebook have upended the digital media business, it makes sense that these businesses don’t want to miss out on what could be media’s next big content platform.

If people actually start buying virtual reality units, politicians will probably figure out ways to try to work the technology to their advantage. They will likely screw it up. For example, take Rand Paul’s goofy campaign livestream, which came roughly three years after the first debate livestream. A really smart campaign, however, could get it right. Which brings me back to Nixon.

The second part of Nixon’s TV debate loss skips forward eight years to when he ran for president again and won. Vowing not to repeat his 1960 TV blunder, in 1968 Nixon hired a successful 26-year-old producer named Roger Ailes, whose hours of studying Nixon on TV and mastery of the medium helped make the Nixon campaign’s TV dominance the stuff of legend.

Nixon got elected president, and three decades later, Ailes would go on to launch the most successful cable news channel of all-time, Fox News.*

* All of the information about the 1960 debate and Nixon comes from Rick Perlstein’s masterful history of the era, “Nixonland.”

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