In 2016, American democracy could very well go to hell in a handbasket. In the meantime, however, NBC News’ Democracy Plaza has a more promising destination: virtual reality.
That’s right: Virtual Democracy Plaza is a “social virtual reality experience” from NBC and social VR firm AltspaceVR, which, NBC said, is the first time a major network has used VR “as a communication medium to cover an election. “
A virtual epicenter
It’s also the first time NBC has added a virtual component to Democracy Plaza. In the three previous elections, NBC has transformed the real-life Rockefeller Center Plaza into what it calls a “national, political epicenter” that includes “an interactive and innovative experience celebrating American democracy and citizenship.”
This year, however, thanks to the integration of VR from AltspaceVR, anyone will be able to visit Democracy Plaza and interact with other visitors through various devices – including Oculus Rift CV1, HTC Vive and Samsung Gear VR. Visitors can also access a 2D experience online.
“What that means for Democracy Plaza is the experience doesn’t end if you can’t be in Manhattan to see this live,” said Jane Fang, director of business development at AltspaceVR. “We are activating it…so anyone from around the world with a VR headset can tune in and feel like they can participate in unique programming.”
And speaking of programming, NBC said it has created just that for the virtual version of Democracy Plaza, including debate watch parties, live Q&A with political experts and live Election Night coverage, which, NBC said, marks a first-of-its-kind use of social VR for “major news event coverage and direct, participatory viewer engagement.”
Virtual Democracy Plaza will be open as of September 21 — including a ribbon-cutting event with none other than NBC personality Al Roker at 6 PM ET — and NBC said users can go to the AltspaceVR website and follow instructions on the landing page to sign up or sign in. Ten minutes before each event starts, users will be able to join.
Per an NBC rep, NBC first launched Democracy Plaza for the 2004 election that saw George W. Bush elected to a second term.
“Each election year since 2004, Democracy Plaza has changed – there are new activations and politically themed décor in the space," the NBC rep said.
Previous iterations have included a map of the US on the famous Rockefeller Center skating rink, colored in as states are called on Election Night, as well as ice sculptures of candidates and plenty of talking heads from NBC.
The NBC rep said details were still being finalized about what the 2016 experience will include, but noted “the real goal of this virtual experience is to expand this even beyond New York City.”
NBC said AltspaceVR is an “app for interacting with others inside of virtual reality” and noted AltspaceVR’s FrontRow technology allows an unlimited number of participants to join a VR event simultaneously. For large events, presenters can appear in as many spaces as desired and can interact with the participants in each space. NBC said this means every attendee feels only a few feet away from the presenter in VR.
“What’s really unique is we built technology that really allows unlimited people to participate in a singular VR experience,” Fang said. “If you think about VR in a lot of different applications, you put on a headset and disappear into your own world…[and] you are by yourself, [but] at AltspaceVR, we use VR to unify people and I think that’s also very consistent with the theme NBC News is trying to drive home with Democracy Plaza – it’s a participatory event and we are really trying to extend it to anyone anywhere even if they can’t be in New York, they can feel like they’re face-to-face with Al Roker.”
Further, Fang noted this particular experience differs from other “snack-size” VR content in that it includes an “incredibly meaty” line-up and encourages participation from viewers not just interested in election news, but who want to talk about topical matters.
‘A trillion times cooler’
Not surprisingly, NBC said it sees VR as a “promising new communication medium” and wants to showcase its “commitment to innovation and experimentation.”
“[VR] allows the benefits of Democracy Plaza to be available to anyone and to expand the project in ways that would not otherwise be possible,” NBC said. “It broadens awareness of VR and provides new types of content that serve new VR market needs.”
However, the NBC rep added, the VR experience is also “trillions of times cooler than that.”
“There’s no other way to describe the experience other than awesome and thrilling,” the rep added. “You could be in different countries and still feel like you’re interacting with others in the space as though they are right next to you."