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Tour the White House with Obama in VR

A 360-degree video on Facebook takes you into White House sanctums like the Oval Office and the Situation Room, a teaser to a longer virtual-reality tour.

US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle take you into iconic spots of the White House in a 360-degree video tour.
Felix & Paul Studios

Yesterday, I sat across from US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. First impression: The room is way smaller than you'd think. (Obama agreed.)

It sounds like something that happened all in my head, but really it happened on my face -- a 360-degree video tour of the White House, led by the president and the first lady, via a Samsung Gear VR headset.

On Friday, Facebook's Oculus launched a 360-video version of the tour on its social network. You can watch on your phone, moving it around you to see in every direction or you can use a Gear VR headset like I did. The 8-minute clip is a prelude to a longer virtual-reality experience to come later this year.

"What we wanted to do is make sure that everybody felt they had access to the White House," Obama says in the experience.

Virtual reality is an entertainment format that makes you feel like you're in the middle of the action, created by wearing a googles-like device that presents a digital view of the world and that responds to the way you turn your head. It's among the buzziest consumer technologies, as big investments in VR hardware by tech giants like Facebook and Samsung start to deliver products to consumers more widely.

Samsung said last week that 5 million of its $99 Gear VR headsets are in use around the world, with more than 10 million hours of video viewed in them so far.

But by and large the technology, new and unfamiliar to creators and consumers alike, has yet to find widespread traction.

The beauty of spherical video

That limited reach, combined with the desire to release the tour before the Obamas leave the White House later this month, motivated the administration and the filmmakers to release the 360-degree-video version via Facebook, according to Félix Lajeunesse, one of the filmmakers.

"The beauty with spherical video, you can distribute all across the world," he said in an interview, since it lets anyone with a phone or tablet still experience the tour. Lajeunesse's company, Felix & Paul Studios, is the same VR filmmaking house that shot "Through the Ages," a virtual-reality experience that visited Yosemite National Park with Obama and his family.

The tour itself takes viewers into eight different areas of the White House. You sit across from Barack Obama in the Oval Office. Michelle Obama sits across the table from you in the Old Family Dining Room. They both narrate the experience with personal recollections and historical notes as you enter places you'll likely never visit in person, like the Situation Room, the White House's intelligence hub.

It's sure to make history buffs geek out. Fans of the Obamas will delight in having what feels like a private sit-down with the president and first lady. If you're not a fan of Obama administration, well, maybe you can start mentally redecorating all the rooms? Send tips and suggestions to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

"The People's House: Inside the White House with Barack and Michelle Obama" is available as a Facebook 360 video as well as Oculus Video for Samsung Gear VR.

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