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The New York Times made a virtual reality newsreel about the 2016 election

The New York Times made a virtual reality newsreel about the 2016 election

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I missed the era of cinematic newsreels by several decades, so I've mostly seen the concept deployed in fiction, where it signals an earlier era when stentorian male voices delivered thinly veiled propaganda to awed, passive audiences. The New York Times' latest experiment with virtual reality — a nine-minute video called The Contender that follows four of our current presidential candidates through their campaign rallies — is not propaganda, nor is it narrated by a man of any voice type. But "VR newsreel" is the closest I can come to describing it.

This is partly because The Contender uses the same calm, authoritative tone I associate with newsreels. It's also because imagining it's some retro-futuristic creation from 1950 makes me like it a lot more. The Times explains that "being alongside voters as they react to their favorite candidate is a privilege that watching such moments on television just does not afford," but for all Google Cardboard's strengths, holding one up to your face does not feel remotely like being in a political rally. Most phones are low-resolution enough that Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump start getting fuzzy when the camera moves more than a few feet away. The video's colors feel duller than those of earlier NYT VR project the Displaced, which also adds to the newsreel feel.

But it's a great prop for pretending you're in one of the more cynical Ray Bradbury stories. Sure, the Times says "experiencing the virtual world of campaign events can leave one wanting to dip more into the body politic." In my 1950s dystopia, staring through the magic picture box reduces campaigns to spectacles even further. The Times promises that "Republicans can get a taste of Democratic campaign events, and Democrats can soak up Republican ones, without having to wait in long lines or listen to partisan speeches in their entirety." The picture box lets you siphon the emotions of your opponents without hearing their political messages! The Times shows you a squad of cheerleaders hyping up crowds to hear a man who believes in a broad religious litmus test for immigrants and promotes bogus statistics from white supremacists...

Actually, I'd rather not make that one even worse.

The Contender is available on the NYT VR app for iOS and Android.