President Obama will soon be appearing in virtual reality, but even there Congress will remain intransigent. This new reality is not that virtual.
The star of this show is not really the president, mind you: it’s Yosemite National Park. The video, produced by National Geographic, Oculus, and Félix & Paul Studios, will follow the first family through the park. This is apparently happening, reports Politico, because “the Obamas are visiting national parks as 2016 marks the centennial of the National Park Service.” You won’t be able to watch the video until August (try to contain your excitement) but a panoramic photo is already available on National Geographic’s website.
After nearly eight years in office, it’s only natural for President Obama to harness much of the nation’s habit of turning its back on him. That, after all, is what this VR project is trying to achieve. Hey look, there’s the president! Now spin around and look at nature! This, in a strange way, is effective politicking. It also exploits VR’s ability to capture the periphery. Traditional filmmaking would require you to either focus on Obama or fully cut away. In the context of this project, VR’s middle road could be a useful compromise.
Virtual reality … is the next frontier for Presidential approachability
The year 2016 is not only the National Park Service’s centenary, mind you; it is also the end of a presidency. (And, depending on your viewpoint, the end of the world as we know it.) The end of a president’s time in office comes with a series of traditions, most obviously an election to succeed his (maybe one day her) replacement. But this is also the point in a presidency where the great-ish man starts planning a presidential library—that grandiose monument to approachability. Indeed, a shortlist of architects for the Obama presidential library in Chicago has already been named and it features the usual big names. Presidential libraries are legendary boondoggles. The Obama foundation was reported to be looking for $800 million to build its monument, which is not exactly the greatest use of that money. Why so much money? Well, in part, virtual reality. Per the New York Times:
In their conversations with Mr. Obama and his advisers, people from Silicon Valley and Hollywood are pressing for a heavy reliance on cutting-edge technology in the library that would help spread the story of Mr. Obama’s presidency across the globe. Ideally, one adviser said, a person in Kenya could put on a pair of virtual reality goggles and be transported to Mr. Obama’s 2008 speech on race in Philadelphia.
Virtual reality, it would appear, is the next frontier for Presidential approachability. Follow the president into the forest! Watch his speech! It brings you closer, I guess. But there is also an undeniable distance; VR facilitates your turning away from the president as much as it does your looking at him. Like the more traditional library, or even Mount Rushmore, it is a large and somewhat clunky monument to approachability—something that can bring you closer while also exacerbating power imbalances and sense of discomfort. Maybe this problem gets solved at the Obama library, but don’t bet on it.