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Virtual Reality Debate: Winner or Loser?

Posted On  October 15, 2015

The CNN-hosted Democratic National Debate quietly showcased, for the first time, a groundbreaking advance: Virtual Reality.  This “VR-cast” was not to be as huge as the first debate telecast during the 1960 Nixon/Kennedy election, but it was an exciting thing to experience first-hand and, as someone who has been working with the VR medium for four years and in entertainment research for over a decade, it has me spinning with thoughts and observations.

How it worked: To attend virtually, I only needed a Samsung Galaxy Note 4 or 5 smartphone and the Samsung/Oculus Gear VR attachment. With a 30 second delay relative to the telecast, the VR version of the debate granted the participant nearly 360-degree freedom to look around from any one of four stationary viewpoints. Approximately every 5 minutes, the perspective changed, giving the participant views from the right and left sides of the stage and the ability to see through the eyes of the debaters and audience members.

A few observations about the experience:

  • It feeds curiosity.  It was fascinating to observe aspects of a debate that don’t typically make it to the polished telecast. I saw the candidates fidget, raise their hands, and engage in a silent, war of body-language jockeying for the attention of moderator Anderson Cooper, while the discrete stage lights cued the speakers when time was up. And it was interesting to see how many people in the audience had their heads down in their smartphones!
  • Part of the powerful moments. It was downright electrifying to experience “crowd moments”, where the energy of the room came alive and I could be a part of it in a way that no TV viewer could experience it. Watching from the stage “with” the candidates, I watched nearly the entire audience in the Wynn Casino auditorium jump to their feet in a roaring standing ovation after one comment and actually “felt” the energy of the crowd. This type of moment begs to be re-experienced.
  • Go in for the close up. The relatively long-shot camera angles and screen resolution of the current technology made the experience feel like watching a play or concert from the cheap seats. The TV audience definitely had a better experience “reading” facial expressions as there were no “close ups” on the candidate. I could only emotionally respond to broad body language. Close ups absolutely need to be a part of future, live VR-casts.
  • More participant control needed.  As mentioned earlier, the participant’s vantage point rotated approximately every five minutes, but the “freedom” of the virtual experience would’ve been greatly enhanced had the viewer been able to switch views at will, by swiping the touchpad on their headset.
  • Make it social.  For most people, entertainment—whether TV shows, movies, concerts, or even political debates —is a social experience. Maybe we watch with friends and family, making comments to one another as the experience unfolds, or perhaps we’re alone with a computing device in hand to follow live tweets, Facebook debates or news sites’ comment sections. Either way, I regularly found myself peeking out from beneath my headset to engage with my phone, such that the headset became a new “wall”, hindering my innate social tendencies. Viewers will be more likely to stay immersed if they can continue engaging in the experience “with” others somehow.
  • Ouch, long-form VR hurts. Not surprising, after about 20 minutes, my eyes started to ache and my nose hurt from the weight and friction of the headset. After an hour, it became an endurance exercise to deal with the ergonomic realities of a first generation technology strapped to my face, and after 90 minutes, the device shut down due to overheating. These ergonomic, form factor, technological, and perceptual issues will be solved eventually, and must if VR is to become a viable mainstream medium for experiences lasting longer than a commercial break.

We’re still just playing on the tip of the iceberg for this new medium, and as an “early practitioner,” I look forward to seeing where entertainment companies, content providers and technology firms take us in the near future.


  1. Interesting read, but where is MR heading with Virtual?. It has a space in retail, no doubt but one senses that is under challenge from more in-store solutions made easy through crown sourcing and a strong focus on the Google ZMOT. What areas are LRW looking into?

  2. Chris, great question and something we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and working on. We use whatever tools, techniques, and paradigms are necessary and appropriate to solving the business and information objectives of our clients–VR is just one of those tools and while it certainly doesn’t apply to all MR, there are several MR areas that VR is well suited for:

    Customer experience design and optimization, whether it be architectural design, store/shelf layout, in store communications, or even customer engagement models, VR can be used to either winnow multiple design concepts in multiple markets during early stage, or optimize a specific design late stage before getting to the build out stage. A recent study we completed to this end for H&R Block was featured in CNBC

    New product concept testing, particularly for high priced durables like automotive or appliances- things that are costly to prototype and logistically difficult to test in multiple markets. Menu board testing in QSR. Outdoor or public space ad testing. Certain types of “deep” brand testing, understanding how brands impact consumer’s self-perceptions. (We’ve developed a patented approach to this called Brand Proteus(r)).

    Finally, beyond VR4MR there is wide potential for VR to impact client marketing, training (e.g., bringing segments to life), and doing good in the world

    An exciting time for our industry!


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