Here's What It's Like to Watch the Debates in VR

My adventure in immersive democracy.
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My adventure in immersive democracy.
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On Tuesday night, Americans flocked around their televisions to view the first Democratic presidential debate. Having ditched cable a few months ago, I was prepared to watch the festivities on Periscope until I discovered the debate would be available on the Oculus-powered Samsung Gear VR headset, courtesy NextVR and CNN. Fortunately, Samsung had sent me a loaner to try out. What better way, I thought, to experience the future of participatory democracy?

Here then, my story:

At precisely 8:30 Eastern time, I “jack in,” as the cyber cowboys put it. Here we go, baby. Let the future begin...

Before me floats a menu featuring a variety of apps. There are games, short films, and many, many appealingly-packaged brand experiences that come absolutely free with the device. To be fair, it’s actually a lot of marketing crap — but it’s some of the coolest marketing crap mankind has ever seen.  

Front and center is a card for the CNN debate. I select it by turning my head and tapping the touch-pad on the side of the headset. Whooooshhh. I’m sent hurtling through a wormhole in the fabric of the cosmos straight to the debate stage in a hotel auditorium in a bleak desert outpost.

Here in the future, we choose our Leader. Every four years, a bunch of Candidates compete to see who can acquire the most money with which to to buy Spots, kiss the most Fledglings, and occasionally stand on a stage together and attempt to lob Zingers. We call that the Debates. 

And here I am, onstage with the leading contenders for the Democratic nomination.

Turning my head to the left, I can see Anderson Cooper, the handsome silver-maned political sage, addressing the audience. Hi, Anderson! Looking good!

To my right, the Candidates. The next Leader might be among them. It’s history in the making, and I’m here.

Apparently there is a way to switch among several camera angles. I never quite figure it out, because while I’m an eager cyber cowboy, this happens to be my very first time at the virtual rodeo. But no matter. From time to time my angle shifts on its own. Sometimes I’m behind the Candidates. Other times, I have a view from stage right. When the guy with the handheld camera slides by to get a tracking shot of the audience, it feels like I can reach out a foot and trip him.

Not like I would ever do that, but it would make for some epic GIFs.

The Candidates are talking about income inequality. It’s incredible how much Bernie Sanders recalls the great Walter Matthau.

There’s a cute blonde in the front row. She looks bored, looking down at her hands and knitting her fingers together. I find myself wondering idly if she has her own room at the hotel....

“Is there any way the rest of us can watch the debate?” my Counterpart is asking. “I wouldn’t mind seeing this too.”

I ignore her. Honey, please. I’m jacked in. She asks again.

“Unfortunately, we cut the cord,” I remind her. “We don’t have TV anymore. You might try public radio...”

Yes, public radio still exists in the tenth month of the 2015th solar year, at least in app form, but our local station is not running the debate. Eventually, my Counterpart take a turn with the headset for a few minutes. I have to Expel the day’s Irrigations anyway.

“Who’s the guy on the right,” she wonders.

Lincoln Chafee, I tell her.

“He’s running?”

“Depends how you define running…” I say wryly, whipping the device from her head and jacking back into the Matrix.

They’re talking about Hillary’s email scandal. Ain’t technology a bitch, I think. Soon there will be no email. No web sites. Just the Matrix.

The discussion moves to other topics. Income equality. Foreign wars. Education. Health care. Gun control. The big banks. Denmark. The Environment.

Blah blah blah. What they don’t seem to realize is that none of it matters in the Matrix. I can literally sweep my finger across the touchpad and be at a beach, courtesy of Marriott Hotels. Or I can play Temple Run for hours. Or I can mess around with a big-ass dinosaur in the Jurassic World experience. There’s even Netflix, in a plush virtual screening room that resembles an A-frame ski chalet.

That’s the thing about virtual reality. It makes reality obsolete.

Bernie Sanders is saying something about how genuine change will only happen when millions of Americans take to the streets and demand it. I don’t think he means virtual streets. Sanders is a Decrepit. No offense, it just means he’s from the Before Times, when streets were paved with...paving stuff. People walked there as they went about their daily business. They often encountered one another in person, and sometimes talked about how things were and how to make them better. Then they took to those same streets to demand change.

This was back before there were apps. Come on Bernie, what would we even demand now? We’ve got everything we could ever imagine, you crazy nut.

The Debate wears on. They’re talking about Russia. That’s when the phone powering the headset overheats, forcing me to spend a few minutes chatting with my Counterpart while it cools off.

After choking down a greasy slice of Sustenance, I jack in to see that the Debate has just wrapped up. The Candidates are milling around the stage. The blonde in the front row is standing up and smoothing out her skirt. I’m totally just looking at her legs. (My Counterpart is none the wiser.)

I feel as though I could just about reach out and tap the woman on the shoulder. “What’d you think?” I would ask her. “Hillary really nailed it, didn't she? Or maybe I just have a thing for powerful women… So, you staying here in the hotel?”

Then the power runs out on my phone, and I’m back in the living room.  

That’s when it hits me. Senator Sanders is right. I do have demands, damn it. I do want things to get better...

What do we want? More battery life, better resolution, and lots more porn apps. When do we want it? Now!