Tech Transforms the Election Experience, From VR to Voter Registration

Xconomy San Francisco — 

My friend Eileen and I are planning to “phone-watch” the first presidential debate together on Monday. Just by calling her number in Louisiana from my couch in the Bay Area, I’ll hear hilarious commentary on the Clinton-Trump exchange from Eileen, a terrific reporter who’s wittier than most standup comics.

I found another name for this low-tech form of long distance TV show sharing in the New York Times: “sync-watching.” Beyond a simple phone call, far-flung friends are using any technical means possible—like Skype and live tweeting—to duplicate that cozy experience of sitting in front of the same TV together.

This is only one of the ways social media and other technologies are changing the experience of forming our views on election issues and choosing our candidates. Tech will probably reinforce our entrenched opinions on politics to some extent—but it may also expand our worldviews and ease access to the voting process. This year for the first time, virtual reality is part of the mix because VR headsets are now widely available.

A Bay Area virtual reality startup is about to add new dimensions to the sync-watching experience for viewers of NBC News’s coverage of events leading up to the presidential election on Nov 8.

AltspaceVR has created a virtual replica of NBC’s Democracy Plaza in New York’s Rockefeller Plaza, the backdrop for network anchors during the debates and on election night. Political junkies will be able to invite their friends to join them in Virtual Democracy Plaza for NBC’s four virtual debate watch parties, political comedy shows, and the vote count drama the night of the election.

Viewers can check out the virtual venue even if they don’t have VR headsets, by going to altvr.com/nbcnews via their PC or Mac. But headset users who join AltspaceVR will have some interesting social options.

If they don’t want to attend a debate-watching party with people of a different political stripe, they can sign up to share it only with their like-minded pals (appearing as avatars, but audible in their own voices.) AltspaceVR can clone the venues it creates—including Virtual Democracy Plaza—so users can choose to inhabit that venue with a bipartisan crowd or with only a single friend if they like. (See how it works here.)

Redwood City, CA-based AltspaceVR is just one of the tech companies that’s trying to draw in more users or customers by creating new projects that put an election spin on their core offerings.

MediaScience, a market research company based in Austin, TX, tries to detect hidden attitudes among members of test panels by capturing their facial expressions, eye movements, heart rate, and other biometric characteristics. MediaScience has mainly worked for companies such as Disney and ESPN, but this year it’s been inviting its panelists to watch videos of Clinton and Trump, the Austin American-Statesman reported. The use of biological metrics and neuroscience in marketing is starting to expand to political research and campaign strategy-making.

Educational technology company Newsela, which creates multiple versions of news articles geared to varying student reading levels, is recruiting teachers to get kids interested in reading election stories by giving them the chance to vote for their favorite candidates in Newsela’s unofficial student polls. Voting opens for the school kids on Oct. 17 and closes Nov. 1, a week before the grownups vote. Newsela plans to release the results of the student election on Nov. 2 so the students can talk about them in class or with their parents. Then they can compare their generation’s verdict with the outcome of the adult vote on election night.

New York-based Newsela aims to offer youngsters straight news without a partisan spin. But if adults want to immerse themselves in the battle of opinions, there’s a new app on the market.

Menlo Park, CA-based Aleya Labs timed the launch this month of its first consumer app, political news and commentary site Contempo, so it would debut in the final weeks before the presidential election. Aleya says Contempo presents a selection of news and opinion items culled from multiple sources on both sides of the political spectrum. The items are chosen based on their social media rankings among “political influencers” from both the conservative and liberal camps. These influencers include bloggers, columnists, think tanks, and satirists.

Users can read articles from both political factions if they want to break out of their personal filter bubbles. But they can also choose only the items that dovetail with their existing views—literally by swiping to the left or to the right. For further convenience, the stories are actually labeled in red or blue.

On another front, technology is changing the way we influence the polls that try to predict the likely outcomes of elections. News stories on the fluctuating leanings of the electorate used to cite surveys by traditional pollsters such as Gallup, which routinely relied on phone calls to landlines. But that method was losing reliability due to lower response rates, as well as the movement toward mobile phones.

Election poll stories now often cite online surveys conducted by companies such as Palo Alto, CA-based SurveyMonkey, which is collaborating with NBC News. For example, their poll this week showed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton regaining … Next Page »

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