The moral of the story you’re about to hear is that you don’t always have to pick between surreal and boring. Some things, like the VIRTUAL REALITY version of the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2016 cycle, can be both. As I learned on Tuesday night watching the debate in CNN’s chosen gimmick format, rather than focus your attention, VR’s weird angles encourage your eyes to wander into the audience or across the floor, so that you stop listening to debaters and start getting lost in the room’s hazy colors. Imagine being stuck in a kaleidoscope while you try to study for the SAT. That’s a little bit like viewing the first Democratic presidential debate in VR.
Shortly after I was recruited to penetrate another dimension of reality with Anderson Cooper, a live audience, and a handful of White House aspirants, my colleague David showed up with my gear. It consisted of an iPhone on which the Oculus app is installed. Also a pair of bulky, black-and-white goggles—think Holstein cow meets SEAL Team 6. You run the app, insert the phone into the front of the goggles, put them on, et voilà! You have unlocked the wholly unusual contemporary experience of staring at a screen.
There’s a fluorescing blue triangle that you direct by moving your head, and then you can click by tapping a button on the right side of the goggles. At 8:30 Tuesday night, feeling a bit like a snake charmer’s cobra, I head-shimmied my arrow to a pulsing, red-white-and-blue square labeled “CNN Democratic Presidential Debate.” Tap.
The screen went black. Oops. Or not black, exactly. It filled up with a tessellated pattern of gray diamonds, though I could hear the announcer’s voice and the chatter of the crowd. I shook my head to try to wake the thing up, and color spilled into my peripheral vision. Oh, I was facing the wrong direction. For whatever reason, the VR machine wanted me to face south. The futon I was sitting on pointed east, so I adjusted by leaning sideways against the armrest: Now I was oriented toward the virtual stage. Debate time!
As a quick disclaimer, it turns out that I may not be the best person for this assignment. I wear glasses. Without my glasses, I cannot see. Not only does Oculus offer poor resolution in general, but there was no room for spectacles (of the ophthalmological variety, anyway) under the Holstein headset. And though none of this had occurred to me before the debate started, it became painfully clear—as an attractive bipedal smudge introduced as Sheryl Crow strode onto the stage—that I would be watching political theater by way of the Impressionists.
One big difference between VR and standard television viewing is that the second gets curated. The camera zooms in on whoever is speaking. When host Anderson Cooper presses Hillary Clinton on whether she’s progressive or moderate, a split-screen materializes to show her reaction as he talks. Not so in VR. Though the camera angles shift occasionally (more on that bizarre whiplash later), each “frame” contains all of the candidates, plus Cooper. Within the frame, you are the captain and director of your immersive 3-D voyage. You are free to stare at the floor while Martin O’Malley defends his record in Baltimore or to gaze into the murky expanse of the nosebleed seating while Bernie Sanders castigates “casino capitalism.” It does feel more like a live event, rather than an edited project. You wield a certain freedom to range around, get distracted, and return when the politicians you care about start to speak. But if a bird’s-eye or panoramic view of the action holds a certain grandeur, it comes at the cost of intimacy. There are no furious or touched or triumphant facial expressions to connect with. The debaters look like dolls in a diorama awash in America-colored lights, not like human beings.
Anyway, the camera angles. They swing around a lot, and without warning, and often in the middle of a speech. This is alarming and not good for digestion—something CNN might have taken into account given the debate’s timing. As the event began, the VR program adopted the perspective of an audience member, someone looking at the semicircle of candidates head on. (I’d been curious about whether gesticulating hands would come flying at me like asteroids in an Imax film, but the debaters just looked small and far away.) Next came the side view, which allowed you to peer into the stage wings and observe crew members squatting over electrical cords and occasionally standing up to stretch their legs. The most annoying angle put you on the ceiling behind the podium. There is a reason auditoriums don’t install seats on the ceiling behind the podium! I spent close to one-third of the debate staring at the back of Jim Webb’s head and puzzling over the blob that was Lincoln Chafee’s terrifyingly erect blob posture. One advantage to the rear vantage, however, is that you enjoy full view of the flashing red lights at the front of the stage that indicate a candidate’s turn is almost over, which is moderately exciting.
The biggest obstacle in bringing virtual reality to the television-watching masses will probably be how isolating it is. You can’t share the experience with another person; you can’t tweet; you can’t even write down notes (because a futuristic Holstein headpiece is covering your eyes). If the VR complex figures out a way to make its programs interactive, improve their resolution, and get their camera swoops under control, it might have a shot at dethroning the idiot box—but I’m not holding my breath.
Still, my strongest VR objection had to do with its relationship to this television event in particular. As the debate unfolded, I found it hard not to be moved by the seriousness and passion of the candidates, who seemed less interested in squabbling than in articulating their policy visions. If the latest GOP contest was about grandstanding and overall spectacle, last night centered on individuals and their beliefs. I wish the VR camera had used split screens and close-ups to treat the candidates as autonomous people, rather than lumping them together as a hologrammatic magic trick.