For the last three presidential elections, NBC News has transformed the area outside its iconic New York City headquarters at Rockefeller Center into Democracy Plaza, an interactive, real-life celebration of the American electoral process. 

In 2016, we saw an opportunity to expand Democracy Plaza beyond Rockefeller Center Plaza. We wanted to allow audiences from all over the world to participate in the experience by introducing the first-ever, Virtual Reality experience for political news, “Virtual Democracy Plaza.”

In partnership with AltspaceVR, the premier app for interaction in Virtual Reality (VR), we immersed thousands of “visitors” in a VR replica of the actual Democracy Plaza space. Realistic details included a recreation of the famed Rockefeller Center ice rink overlaid with a U.S. map.

Virtual participants found themselves in a replica of Democracy Plaza with other realistic touches such as the ice rink at Rockefeller Center.
Virtual participants found themselves in a replica of Democracy Plaza with other realistic touches such as the ice rink at Rockefeller Center.

NBC News held 11 major programming events within the space during the 50 days leading up to the election. The events included a ribbon-cutting ceremony with TODAY’s Al Roker complete with virtual fireworks; a cybersecurity panel with Mr. Robot producer, Kor Adana; and Q&A about the electoral process moderated by Chuck Todd of Meet The Press.

Video screens within the space provided a livestream of the four debates and NBC’s Election Night coverage. It was an untraditional and cost-effective means of extending our Democracy Plaza coverage between the virtual and physical worlds.

AltspaceVR allowed us to make this a true cross-platform experience. Viewers could join via their app on Oculus Rift, Samsung GearVR, and HTC Vive devices, or watch  in 2-D mode via a desktop plugin or a YouTube livestream player socialised across Facebook and Twitter. Events were promoted on television, digital, and newsletter platforms.  

Virtual attendees were positioned only a few feet away from the action and were able to interact with anchors and other participants using in-experience technology.
Virtual attendees were positioned only a few feet away from the action and were able to interact with anchors and other participants using in-experience technology.

AltSpaceVR’s “front row” technology allowed an unlimited number of participants to join a VR event simultaneously. For large events, presenters and technology were mirrored across multiple spaces so attendees would feel they were only a few feet away from the action.

To make the experience more realistic, select NBC News anchors received personalised avatars. We also outfitted them with Perception Neuron motion capture suits so their in-real-life movements would be tracked, and their VR avatars would move in kind.

This effort was an overwhelming hit with audiences, who averaged viewership times of 44 minutes — significantly higher than our other 360-video VR efforts.

Up to 73% of viewers used in-experience tools to engage with hosts and other visitors. They sent in-app messages to other users and expressing emotion with virtual emojis. Attendees could also take selfies at our VR selfie booth in front of the Oval Office desk, White House press podium, or standing with photos of candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

The campaign was well received in the press. One of our favourites was on The Tonight Show on NBC when Jimmy Fallon joked about our VR presidential debate watch party: “NBC is teaming up with a tech company to stream the debates in Virtual Reality. So if you’re wearing a VR headset, it’s like the candidates are lying right to your face.”