Not ready for its close-up: Virtual reality makes presidential debate virtually unwatchable

CNN's experiment with the Democratic presidential debate shows the limits of virtual reality entering the mainstream.

Max Taves Staff Reporter
Max writes about venture capitalism and startups while seeking out the new new thing to come out of Silicon Valley. He joined CNET News from The Wall Street Journal, where he contributed stories on commercial real estate, architecture, big data and more. He's also written for LA Weekly, Slate and American Lawyer Media's The Recorder, where he covered legal battles in Silicon Valley. Max holds degrees from Georgetown University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
Max Taves
3 min read

Since Richard Nixon sweated and scowled his way through the first televised presidential debate with John Kennedy in 1960, TV's importance in American politics has been well established. Being a successful politician, or at least getting elected, requires knowing how to look good on camera.

But judging by the first debate for presidential hopefuls streamed live in virtual reality, it's doubtful that this burgeoning technology will have much impact on politics.

On Tuesday night, CNN partnered with virtual-reality startup NextVR to make the Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas available in real time in virtual reality to audiences anywhere, as long as they had a prototype of the Samsung Gear VR headset . The consumer edition will be landing on store shelves in November for $99 apiece, not including the cost of a phone to power it.

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CNN's attempt at virtual reality made the Kennedy-Nixon debate look good. Bettmann/Corbis

If political debates don't usually excite you, this experience probably wouldn't have either. That is, of course, unless you do actually happen to be into watching five barely recognizable people face off for two hours as a heavy, awkward headset holds an overheating Samsung smartphone inches from your face.

This was supposed to be one of the big splashes that pushed virtual reality beyond gaming and into the mainstream. But that's not how it will likely go down.

To be sure, after more than two decades of little more than talk, virtual reality is having its day in the sun. Smartphone makers such as Samsung and HTC plan to release VR devices this holiday season. Sony and Facebook have their own devices in the works for 2016, when industry watcher Juniper Research expects about 3 million headsets to be sold. By 2020, Juniper expects that number to hit 30 million.

However, CNN's experiment with Laguna Beach, California-based NextVR revealed the current shortcomings of virtual reality, casting serious doubt on exactly how popular those devices will really be for anyone who's not a hardcore gamer.

In theory, virtual reality is supposed to give viewers deeply immersive experiences, allowing them to choose where they want to look and when. For that reason, it's often spoken of as a potential game-changer for everything from gaming and entertainment to journalism.

It's a stretch, though, to say virtual-reality viewers were very immersed in the debate, which pitted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton against US Sen. Bernie Sanders as well as the long-shots, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former US Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee.

CNN VR viewers got to see the stage and audience from three or four different angles, each providing 180-degree views. But those wide angles came with a cost: close-ups.

When CNN's average TV viewers saw Clinton's pearl earrings, all I saw was a blonde-haired blob on stage in a blue pantsuit. And when everyone else was watching Sanders sporting those 1970s-chic glasses, what I saw was an old white guy in a suit who appeared mildly fond of moving his hands.

And the audience? Forget about them. Individual reactions to the debate were completely impossible to read.

So while the candidates and the audience were mostly indistinguishable on stage, several huge CNN logos were always in sight. I counted nine in one shot. Fans of the network's Anderson Cooper had something to be happy about. Besides his cameramen, who appeared below me a few times, Cooper was as close as you got to seeing a human up close in virtual reality and that was still from about 15 feet away.

Still, NextVR, whose cameras and technology CNN used to capture and stream the event, did blunt some of the usual critiques of virtual reality. That is, there were few glitches or delays, even as I moved my gaze quickly from the stage to the audience and back. And I didn't feel like throwing up while doing it, which is progress in VR world.

"I tell people that it's like the first brick cell phone," NextVR co-founder D.J. Roller said before the event. "But it's still pretty good."

Um, I'm not so sure. Roller, though, offers at least one good reason to stay hopeful: "That's as bad as it's going to get."

Correction, 9:25 a.m. PT October 14: The spelling of Lincoln Chafee's last name has been fixed.