Last night's Democratic Debate was live-streamed in virtual reality to anyone with the Gear VR headset, and I gamely strapped the device to my face to try to sit through as much of the presentation as I could stomach in this format.
The broadcast was fascinating as an experiment in virtual reality broadcasting, but it was defined more by its limitations than its advantages.
What you saw
There were multiple VR cameras set up around the debate: one in the crowd and the rest on the stage. The view switched between these cameras on the whim of someone in a control room somewhere, and it could be hard to adjust when your point of view suddenly shifted to another area of the room. It would have been much more comfortable if the viewer had full control over what they saw, and when.
That being said, the presentation was much less choreographed and framed in VR than it was on TV. I could look at what I wanted, which gives you some interesting insights. It was fun watching Anderson Cooper raise a single hand when he tried to break in, and you could often see the body language of the candidates as they reacted to each other.
You could also see the lights set up at the foot of the stage and off in the middle distance that flashed lights of different colors to let the speaker know their time was up. Little bits of interaction and stage craft that are hidden in the tight shots of television production were fully on display here, and it felt as though my recliner was situated on the stage itself. It's a very intimate, telling way to watch people interact with each other.
That being said, streaming this sort of video is in its infancy; both the hardware and the bandwidth left something to be desired. The presentation was in a relatively low resolution, which meant that making out facial expressions in all the wide shots was next to impossible, and there was no camera that was close enough to catch the little smiles and grimaces you saw on television.
Watch this exchange:
We get so much from camera placement, facial expressions and hand motions. This was one of the most memorable exchanges of the evening, but seen from a low-resolution camera on the corner of the stage it was robbed of much of its power and immediacy. Much of the fine detail was lost, which means the emotions just didn't land the same way. Instead of bringing me closer, the tech kept me further away.
Capturing, broadcasting and streaming 360-degree video of a live event is an impressive feat, but it's going to be a good long time until the United States has the sort of online infrastructure to deliver the experience in the resolution that we're used to from our televisions or laptops.
It's also very isolating. My wife was watching on a standard display, and I tend to tweet often during debates. Talking to others while you're in virtual reality isn't easy, and typing is next to impossible. The Gear VR has a sensor that knows when your face is near the lenses, and shuts off when you remove it. My solution was to put a piece of clear tape over the sensor so I could slip the headset on and off without resetting the application, allowing me to talk to my wife or send a quick tweet before venturing back into VR.
Is this the future?
Not yet. You miss too much detail when watching the debate in this manner, and you have to deal with the fact you're cutting yourself off from everyone and everything around you. That may be attractive to some, but it's going to be a huge downside to most.
The mainstream is likely unwilling to look like this while taking in their politics:
But this is a fascinating way to watch a live event, and I felt like I had a much better sense of the room, the crowd and the tone of the event from watching in virtual reality. It often felt like I was there, even with the resolution limitations. The small details and moments between people that weren't caught by the cameras — which you can see swooping and gliding around the stage in VR — helped the event feel smaller in a way.
The battery in my phone wasn't nearly up to the challenge of displaying live VR for three hours, however. The last 40 minutes were watched on my laptop. It was a relief.