(How) could VR and presence influence politics?

[In the context of today’s polarization, it’s worth considering the potential of presence-evoking technologies for engaging, informing and building empathy in the context of not just elections but politics generally. This link-heavy summary of some recent efforts is from Forbes; see the original version for five more pictures. –Matthew]

Could Virtual Reality Influence Election Campaigns?

Sol Rogers, CEO and Founder of REWIND, an Emmy nominated immersive content studio that fuses bleeding-edge technology with award-winning creative storytelling.
December 10, 2019

Politicians always try to adapt to new forms of media to allow them to connect to their voter-base. Consider Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” in the thirties, John F. Kennedy’s early mastery of television in the sixties, or Donald Trump’s use of Twitter. The adoption of modern communication forms has arguably never been as important for politicians as it is today.

Politics and technology have become intrinsically linked. With the U.K. general election [last] week, we’ve seen the main parties embrace a local digital strategy to win votes. Political parties now spend more on online advertising than traditional channels, with widespread political activity taking place on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

As technology and forms of communication evolve, could we see virtual reality offering a new edge over the competition? With the combination of data and immersive technology, a whole new level of campaigning is possible. While we haven’t seen U.K. politicians adopt immersive technology for this election, the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign gave us a glimpse into the future of virtual reality in election campaigns.

The 2016 U.S. presidential election was an extremely divided campaign. Virtual reality social network, AltspaceVR, teamed up with NBC News to test if they could bring users together in a positive manner in the lead up to the election. A full virtual re-creation of the NBC News Democracy Plaza at New York’s Rockefeller Center was produced. Then, they hosted a presidential debate watch party, with a screen for watching the live debates, a map for counting states on election night, plus appearances from NBC journalists.

Via avatars, users were able to join these live VR events, which included live Q&As with political experts and an Election Night finale with virtual fireworks. Anyone misbehaving was kicked out by moderators and users could mute anyone they didn’t want to hear from. The effort was an overwhelming hit with audiences, with an average viewership time of 49 minutes—magnitudes above the industry average for other social video efforts—and nearly 100 pieces of media coverage. It also appeared that as people interacted with each other directly with their voices, rather than semi-anonymously through social media posts, things were kept pretty civil.

Virtual reality was also used by the Bernie Sanders campaign during the 2016 Democratic Primary. One of his fundraising events was recorded with a 360º camera and shared. LA-based virtual reality studio, Virtuality Lab, conducted the shoot. VR users could put on a headset and observe Sanders giving his speech at the event. The New York Times also created a virtual reality documentary chronicling the first few months of the 2016 primary season. Experiencing the Presidential Campaign: A Virtual Reality Film immersed the users in a variety of events with Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Hillary Clinton.

The Benefits Of VR

Beyond election campaigns, virtual reality can have many other uses. For example, the learning disability charity Mencap has used virtual reality within its scheme to ease anxieties that disabled people might have about going to the polling station. In Belfast, a VR experience has been created to take users through the entire process, with the aim of demystifying voting and to make it less daunting. Mencap is hoping the project will encourage more disabled people to get on the electoral roll.

In 2017, Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony was recorded on 360 degree cameras and live streamed on YouTube. The experiment was part of USA Today’s “VRtually There” show, and it gave Trump supporters access to the ceremony, as if they were really there, without the travel.

Filmmakers and advocacy groups have turned to the medium of VR as a tool for building empathy and driving action. For example, social justice and policy advocates are beginning to use VR as a tool for prompting legislative change. Project Empathy released a film that captured New York Times’ bestselling author Shaka Senghor’s story of 19 years in prison and seven years in solitary confinement. 85% of the several hundred people who saw it at the Democratic National Convention said that it had changed their opinion on criminal justice.

Barack and Michelle Obama created a 360° tour of the White House before their departure. The tour was a unique peek behind the political curtain, allowing anyone with a headset to get inside one of the most exclusive addresses in the world and experience the property as if they were really there. This tour experience opened the world of U.S. politics up a little to the average person, who is never likely to be able to actually visit the White House, bringing people closer to a political system they may, or may not, want to align with.

Virtual reality can change what we see, how we think, what we feel and even how we behave—in part because we perceive it to be “reality.” This is how VR has been used to treat conditions like autism, PTSD, depression, and phobias; offer pain relief and even promote recovery in paraplegics.

Shared perspective breeds understanding. VR can, and will, drive compassion, allowing us to feel and understand more, through being exposed to situations and places that we otherwise would never experience. When politicians use the technology in this vein, VR could unite a fractured world and encourage those more fortunate to help those less so, even change politics for the better, and for good.

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