Tour the White House with Obama in VR

Digital Media

by Joan E. Solsman January 13, 2017 7:00 AM PST @joan_e

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Yesterday, I sat across from US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. First impression: The room is way smaller than you'd think. (Obama agreed.)

It sounds like something that happened all in my head, but really it happened on my face -- a 360-degree video tour of the White House, led by the president and first lady, via a Samsung Gear VR headset.

Friday, Facebook's Oculus launched a 360-video version of the tour on its social network. You can watch on your phone, moving it around you to see in every direction, or you can use a Gear VR headset like I did. The 8-minute clip is a prelude to a longer virtual-reality experience to come later this year.

"What we wanted to do is make sure that everybody felt they had access to the White House," Obama says in the experience.

Virtual reality is an entertainment format that makes viewers feel like they're in the middle of the action, created by wearing a responsive headset. It's among the buzziest consumer technologies, as big investments in VR hardware by tech giants like Facebook and Samsung start to deliver products to consumers more widely.

But the technology, new and unfamiliar to creators and consumers alike, has yet to find widespread traction.

That limited reach, combined with the desire to release the tour before the Obamas leave the White House, motivated the administration and the filmmakers to release the 360-degree-video version via Facebook, according to Félix Lajeunesse, one of the filmmakers.

"The beauty with spherical video, you can distribute all across the world," he said in an interview, since it lets anyone with a phone or tablet still experience the tour. Lajeunesse's company, Felix & Paul Studios, is the same VR filmmaking house that shot "Through the Ages," a virtual-reality experience that visited Yosemite National Park with Obama and his family.

The tour itself takes viewers into eight different areas of the White House. You sit across from Obama in the Oval Office. Michelle Obama sits across the table from you in the Old Family Dining Room. They both narrate with personal reflections and historical tidbits, taking viewers to places that we'll likely never, ever, in a billion years visit in person, like the Situation Room, the White House's intelligence hub.

It's sure to make history buffs geek out. Fans of the Obamas will delight in having what feels like a private sit-down with the president and first lady. If you're not a fan of Obama administration, well, maybe you can start mentally redecorating all the rooms? Send tips and suggestions to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

"The People's House: Inside the White House with Barack and Michelle Obama" is available as a Facebook 360 video as well as Oculus Video for Samsung Gear VR.

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