The more remote someone feels, the less human they seem. This is the driving force behind large parts of what is wrong with communicating on the internet, and it often makes talking about politics on the internet a special kind of hell. But virtual reality, theoretically, can make people on opposite sides of the globe feel like they’re talking face-to-face. And this election season, a VR social network called AltspaceVR is testing whether this feeling of connection can bring its users together during a bitterly divided campaign.
AltspaceVR has spent the last year building a community that will casually show up online to play virtual Dungeons & Dragons, attend virtual stand-up comedy shows, or sit around a virtual big-screen TV watching e-sports together. From now until November, though, it’s trying something unusually ambitious: a full re-creation of the NBC News Democracy Plaza at New York’s Rockefeller Center, complete with a huge screen for watching live debates, a map for counting states on election night, and appearances from NBC journalists.
When I first enter the VR 30 Rock, it’s just me and a couple of people from AltspaceVR and NBC, doing a press tour before its official launch. As far as I can tell, it’s an accurate representation of the real plaza’s buildings and patriotic set dressing. But while some virtual cars are whizzing by on streets I can’t reach, it’s an eerily empty parallel New York — its greenery rendered with the blockiness of an old video game. We might be getting better at making VR spaces, but this isn’t the Metaverse just yet.
This changes at launch, when AltspaceVR hosts a kickoff party featuring Today show weather anchor Al Roker. Avatars start popping into the plaza and making their way to a platform at the far end: a mix of cartoon men and women, limbless floating robots, and a few people — like me — who appear as slender, vaguely humanoid spirals. About 130 people are there at any given time, but I can only see a couple dozen; AltspaceVR is using a system in which audience members are split across several different rooms, each of which appears to have the star of the show on stage. The system is supposed to simulate the intimacy of a book reading or stand-up comedy show, but here, it’s fascinatingly weird. Cheering crowds are practically part of the scenery at political events, but I’m in a sedate group of avatars, all of whom willingly mute themselves when Roker gets on the stage. Instead of applause, people respond by sending hearts, smiley faces, and clapping hands floating into the air. "Let's give him a bigger round of emojis!" yells host (and Today show wrangler) Alex Ficquette. We all oblige.
Apparently, it’s Roker’s first time not just in AltspaceVR, but in virtual reality. "It takes a little getting used to, but it’s kind of fun," he tells an audience member, looking out at the enthusiastically emoting crowd. "The armless robots, though, are freaking me out a little." In my room, one of them has somehow gotten stuck in the middle of the stage, only the top of its metal head visible. Roker, presumably, can’t see it.
Despite the strangeness of the situation, the patter between Roker and Ficquette feels disarmingly natural. Hearing someone’s voice attached to an avatar, even an unrealistic one, brings them a few steps closer to you. The way that VR removes distractions and creates a sense of space amplifies it. When Roker takes questions, it genuinely feels more like a fireside chat than a call-in radio show — or, at least, it does when the questions come from a person who’s visible in my plaza and not one of its unseen copies.
But the big question isn’t whether you’ll feel closer to Al Roker in VR. It’s whether you’ll feel close enough to people with conflicting politics to have a civil conversation. At the plaza, I ask AltspaceVR CEO Eric Romo if the debate parties will have separate spaces for supporters of different political parties. "I don't think there's any plan to do that yet. We're hoping for some healthy political discourse," he says. "It's interesting to think about doing something like that, but for now, we're hoping for everybody to come join the same events, really." If things break down, visitors can always mute another user, editing them out of their reality, and a team of moderators will kick people out for bad behavior. "We expect that things are going to stay positive," says Romo. "It speaks to a difference in the medium: [from] the medium of text based-commentary, when you're semi-anonymous, to interacting with a person directly with your voice. You're probably still semi-anonymous, but you're a lot closer to who you are." People will, however, be able to organize their own public events meant for specific parties.
At the end of the night, everyone gathers on the Rockefeller Center ice rink for a group photo. "So who hates both candidates?" someone calls out after Roker flicks out of existence, answering his own question as other people imitate skating around the rink. The slightly awkward near-silence that follows isn’t spirited discourse, but it’s still miles past a YouTube comment section — and probably not all that different from real life.
AltspaceVR and NBC News will host a presidential debate watch party and afterparty tonight on Democracy Plaza, starting at 9PM PT. You can RSVP here to attend via HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, or flat screen.