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

CNN’s experiment to make the Democratic presidential debate available live shows limits of virtual reality entering the mainstream.

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 if the first debate for president streamed live in virtual reality is any guide, it’s doubtful that this burgeoning technology will have much impact on politics whatsoever.

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 Samsung Gear VR headset.

If political debates don’t usually excite you, this experience probably wouldn’t have either, unless, of course, you do actually happen to be into watching five barely recognizable candidates face off for two hours through an over-heating Samsung smartphone held inches from your face by an awkward-looking, heavy headset made by the Korean electronics giant.

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, VR 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. And for that reason, it’s often spoken of as a potential game-changer for everything from gaming and entertainment to journalism.

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

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, I could see 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 barely recognizable on stage, several huge CNN logos were always in sight. I counted nine in one shot. Anderson Cooper fans 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 VR 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 VR. That is, there were few glitches or delays, even as I moved 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 DJ Roller said before the event. “But it’s still pretty good.”

Um, I’m not so sure. But Roller offers at least one good reason to stay hopeful.

“That’s as bad as it’s going to get.”

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