Democratic debate in VR tonight could be “terrible,” says Stanford researcher

by Ian Hamilton • October 13th, 2015

Live-streaming panoramic video startup NextVR is sending the Democratic Presidential debate into its app on the Gear VR tonight. The debate kicks off at 5:30 PM PST/8:30 PM EST (check your timezone) on CNN and is the first of its kind — a live news event streamed into VR. We’ll have the app up and running on our Gear VRs to check out how it looks, but Stanford VR researcher Jeremy Bailenson took the opportunity to describe how the experience might just be awful.

Jeremy Bailenson is recognized as one of the top voices in VR research.

He posted to Slate that the live-stream is “a terrible idea” and gave an assortment of warnings about the technical limitations to the kind of panoramic footage a variety of companies are capturing and streaming into headsets. And in the case of a live-streamed Presidential debate, he warns, those limitations can have unfortunate consequences both for the viewer and for the candidates.

From his piece:

I have researched the psychological impact of virtual reality for almost two decades, and to date I haven’t worn a head-mounted display for more than 30 minutes. Tolerance for simulator sickness varies across people, but watching a two-hour debate in virtual reality will make many people feel ill.

He thinks there could be distortions to the footage which could exaggerate an innocuous hand gesture into a scary movement or that candidates off to the side might not be seen as having the same depth as those in the center.

Bailenson isn’t the only high profile name who is discussing the debate, Stephen Colbert on the Late Show recently took aim at the debate in a humorous bit about watching the event in VR. “It really feels like I am sitting and watching something I can see – on TV,” he quipped, while supposedly watching the Republican debate.

Overall, this looks to be Laguna Beach-based NextVR’s biggest moment in the spotlight to date. I’ve found their footage to be better than most panoramic captured footage but Bailenson’s warnings offer some useful insight into the risks and limitations of capture technology. However, we haven’t seen the debate yet and don’t know how it will look so we’ll withhold judgment until after tonight.

Update: This post was updated from its original version to clarify a paragraph describing Bailenson’s warnings about the state of technology available to live-stream the debate.

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