VR Gets Political: Virtual Reality in the 2016 Presidential Campaign

VR Gets Political: Virtual Reality in the 2016 Presidential Campaign


Every four years (or, realistically, about every 2), a phenomenon known as the election cycle sweeps through the US. The election of the President of the US is a hugely significant event, both in America and elsewhere, and for many years, news reporting surrounding political campaigns, and the sometimes shocking stories that come with them, has been a catalyst for technology. The US presidential election cycle in 1952 pushed the integration of television into American life when Eisenhower pioneered using commercial spots to promote his campaign to the American people. Over the next ten years, broadcast TV access exploded, expanding from around 70 providers during the 1952 election to over 800 in 1962. 

President Barack Obama image: Whitehouse.gov
President Barack Obama image: Whitehouse.gov

Good thing or bad, the fact remains that politics has driven innovation in broadcast and information technology in the US in the past, and it’s happening again with this year’s boom in virtual reality news. The flood of VR headsets entering the market in the last two years, and the ever-lowering price-point on the tech, is prompting news agencies, VR developers, and filmmakers alike to taking advantage of this election cycle to start exploring new ways of reporting on world events. Here are some of the new ways voters this year are engaging with the campaigns using virtual reality.

NBC – Virtual Reality Community Platform

NBC has been heavily investing in exploratory VR technology for several years now. Up until this year’s election, their focus was mainly sporting events, using a partnership with VR developer NextVR to record and then rebroadcast sporting events from basketball to the 2016 Olympics. With the $99 smartphone-run Samsung Gear VR headset.

On September 21st, NBC brought this VR-centered reporting model to the US presidential election with the launch of their “Virtual Democracy Plaza”, a virtual reproduction of Rockefeller Center that mirrors the real life Democracy Plaza NBC creates in Rockefeller Plaza. This virtual version of the real deal offers a few special perks; during coverage of the debates and other events, VR viewers will be able to interact in real time with various experts and anchors, who will be present as virtual avatars, available to answer questions and provide commentary on the events. Viewers will have their own avatars that can chat and interact with one another, allowing people from across the country to experience a unique town hall discussion vibe from the comfort of their living rooms.

NBC has created their Virtual Democracy Plaza in partnership with VR developer AltspaceVR, who are at the forefront of community creation using VR technology. AltspaceVR launched their virtual chatroom app in June of 2015 and have been creating unique community-centered experiences ever since.

CNN – Debates in Virtual Reality

Like NBC, CNN has recognized the possibilities of VR and teamed up with California-based developer NextVR to record and present the first Democratic debate of the primary season in virtual reality, available to users of the Samsung Gear VR headset. This virtual reality debate broadcast provided viewers with the experience of being in the audience, experiencing every a cough and reaction in real time. NextVR believes that the next generation of visual news broadcasting and entertainment will use virtual reality to allow viewers to customize their experience, eventually leading to people being able to move around virtual spaces and interact with the event, movie, or show as it is happening.

Unlike NBC, CNN’s event was as simple broadcast of the event as it happened, without any commentary or community engagement. However, the technology has important implications for news reporting as it continues to develop; how amazing (and educational) would it be to have the ability to move around the stage as the candidates were conducting their debate? Or if there were interactive qualities to the broadcast which allow individuals to fact-check the candidate’s statements in real time? These elements are only a few of the possibilities opened up by Virtual Reality reporting, and clearly, CNN intends to be a pioneer in the field.

Kosher.tv – Virtual Reality Analytics

VR has implications for more than just entertainment or virtual reporting. With the tools made possible by interactive virtual spaces, the field of analytics, the science of interpreting patterns in data sets, can more accurately and efficiently gain valuable insights from all kinds of input. The phone bank is the traditional tool of pollsters looking to gain some insight, but with the advent of VR technology, researchers now have the opportunity to record, examine, and interpret both verbal responses to questions and events, and the non-verbal reactions like eye movement, microexpressions, and biometric responses that reveal the inner workings of the viewer’s mind.

Not only can they record and observe this data, VR analytics presents all kinds of new opportunities for interacting with that data, to help researchers make sense of the results and to help them better spot patterns in the sometimes huge pool of data. Imagine if you could physically manipulate a graph to bring out hidden information, or use verbal commands to process numbers, rather than typing in commands. These sorts of VR actions seem taken straight from sci-fi, evoking the holo suites of Star Trek, but by the next presidential election, this sort of in-depth hands-on analysis may be the rule, rather than the exception.

Companies like Kosher.tv are on the forefront of this new data analysis tool, providing the software for users to manipulate, categorize, and view the data that they collect. They also have plans to provide analytics support for pollsters on both sides of the presidential campaign in 2020.

New York Times VR Documentary – “Experiencing the Presidential Campaign: A Virtual Reality Film”

It isn’t only polsci pundits and data mining analysts who are eager to make use of VR technology to connect in new ways. The New York Times threw their hat in the ring with the creation of their VR documentary chronicling the first few months of the extremely contentious 2015 Primary season. “Experiencing the Presidential Campaign: A Virtual Reality Film” places the viewer in the role of simple observer, allowing them to take a step back while at the same time immersing them in the incredible frenzy of a Bernie Sanders rally, or the impassioned crowing of a crowd of Trump supporters, and customize their viewing experience with viewpoints and pop-up information.

It’s clear that virtual reality is here to stay. When it comes to potential, this technology has an unprecedented power to transform the way we interact with media of all types, and allowing us to engage and connect with our media, and with other viewers, in ways that were previously impossible. The 2016 presidential campaign is only one of the many portals through which we can see a small glimpse of the future of VR media, but it presents some most fascinating developments, and perhaps, the truest example of why virtual reality is the next big thing.


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