Last night, the Democratic presidential debate became the first-ever political debate (and one of the first events, period) to be streamed live in virtual reality, thanks to a collaboration between CNN and video service NextVR. As just about anyone could have predicted, the response was mixed. I spent the evening chatting with a few other VR enthusiasts on Twitter, and for a variety of reasons, not one of us managed to spend the full two-plus hours in our Gear VR headsets.
But it's possible to imagine a world where watching a debate in VR makes sense — and isn't, as this debate was, limited to the small group of enthusiasts with a Gear VR. As my Polygon counterpart Ben Kuchera noted, getting a wider view of the debate makes body language, not just facial expressions, easier to read. Feeling the bright lights of the stage and hearing the crowd applaud all around you captures a real excitement that's not there on a flat screen. And the easily distracted, like me, don't have to constantly stop themselves from picking up a book or writing story outlines.
What would we need to make this world a reality? Well, a lot of technical leaps, plus a few conceptual ones. I don't think immersive debating is going to catch on during the 2016 presidential race, but if VR is going to be the next revolution in entertainment, we can't leave the world of politics behind.
Fix the basic VR experience
Based on how many apps I had to update, uninstall, and reinstall to get the stream running — with no guidance from the Gear VR — I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Oculus and Samsung just really, really hate the concept of civic education. Once the debate started, a couple of my fellow viewers had their headsets periodically overheat, a relatively common problem for the Gear VR. My phone's battery was running low before I started, and there's no way to juice it up while wearing the headset, so I had to take periodic charging breaks.
These problems should be either fixed or ameliorated in the consumer Gear VR, which is coming later this year. Others, though, are less tractable. Headset screens aren't going to look as good as flat displays for a long time, and the Gear VR's was too blurry for me to make out candidates' faces or even tell most of them apart. And while the Gear VR is as light as full-featured mobile VR gets right now, it's still not comfortable to wear for hours at a time. You can enjoy VR even with these limitations, but until headsets lose some weight and add a lot of pixels, it's a real barrier for anybody outside the existing community.
Add a social component
I'm not talking about some weird gimmick like making a virtual Anderson Cooper ask you questions or adding a skeuomorphic living room full of virtual couches. I'm talking about the things that lots of us already do during debates: texting, messaging, and tweeting. I spent almost as much time peeking through the gap in my headset to check Twitter as I did watching the candidates, and fellow reporter Eric Johnson actually managed to run a live blog.
I spent as much time checking Twitter through the gap in my headset as I did watching the candidates
Unlike voice or video, text complements the main event instead of drowning it out. Just as importantly, it's persistent — if you're caught up in a particularly passionate Bernie Sanders speech, you can read and reply at your leisure. Unfortunately, it's one of the hardest things to render well on a low-resolution screen, and we're still figuring out even basic VR input. But mark my words: someone is eventually going to build a VR-friendly keyboard with raised symbols and LED trackers, and that person is going to have a great Kickstarter campaign.
I wasn't just checking Twitter to read my friends' quips and make fun of Jim Webb. The platform is also a nonstop news ticker full of commentary, fact-checking, and context. What has Hillary Clinton actually said about the Trans-Pacific Partnership? What questions didn't get asked? Is a Republican candidate going to say something racist? One of the benefits of virtual reality is that you've got a display as big as your field of vision, so why not put something on it besides a wide shot of five podiums?
Please, let me eat
I ate potato chips and honey-roasted peanuts for dinner last night. This is partly because there's no VR equivalent to setting your laptop on the kitchen counter while you cook. It's also because while I trust myself to transfer small objects from my hand to my mouth, anything more complicated would probably end in spilled food, minor fork wounds, and tears. Technically, I could have turned on the Gear VR's pass-through camera, but there's no point in wearing the headset if the debate's not on it.
Augmented reality might be a better fit for debates than virtual reality
This is where augmented reality like the HoloLens really comes into its own — or, even better, the mythical combination of VR and AR. I could have just shrunk the video to the size of a small TV, eaten, and blown it back up without missing a minute. The debate wasn't even filmed with a 360-degree camera, just a very wide-angle lens, so it's essentially just a big screen anyways.
Do more fancy cyberspace stuff
Right now, a big perk of using VR for basic activities like watching TV and attending meetings is getting to pretend you live in a cyberpunk dystopia. The actual process of turning on a headset and launching an app, however, is fairly mundane. Just as we long for science fiction jetpacks, even though they're a terrible and totally unnecessary idea, some part of me wants to really feel like I'm in System Shock or Count Zero.
I want a robotic voice to coolly announce "metaverse transition complete" when I tune into the debate, and for the world to start melting into Dali-esque chaos when my battery gets low. Maybe Anderson Cooper's glasses can be encoded with subliminal Super PAC messaging guarded by black ICE. I'm not sure how any of this would work, but I already look like a huge dork wearing VR goggles. At least let me pretend I'm a cyberspace cowboy while doing it.
(Please do not actually do this one, by the way. It is an awful idea. But we're not going to get past William Gibson cliches until virtual reality becomes part of everyday life, and it'll be months until most people can even buy a finished headset. The early adopters might as well have some fun with it.)