Thanks to Virtual Reality, You Too Can Hang Out With Obama

Pete Souza/White House

Virtual reality is such a new technology that it’s really cool, and perhaps a little surprising, to see a sitting president embrace it in such a big way.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology and government. He is currently the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys

So, what did you all do this weekend? Me, I hung out at Yosemite National Park with President Obama and his family. We rode a canoe across the Merced River, gazed in wonder at the centuries old sequoia trees and contemplated cooling off under beautiful Yosemite Falls.

While I wish that experience was real, I sort of feel like it was as Obama becomes the first president to star in a virtual reality production. Designed for the Oculus Rift and available now in the Oculus Store, the production follows a visit the president made to Yosemite over the summer to promote the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

» Get the best federal technology news and ideas delivered right to your inbox. Sign up here.

Virtual reality is such a new technology that it’s really cool, and perhaps a little surprising, to see a sitting president embrace it in such a big way. Even though his visit to Yosemite happened over the summer, the White House kept the VR production under wraps until last week, wanting to release it in conjunction with the 100th anniversary Parks Service celebration. It has quickly become one of the most downloaded programs for VR.

When loaded up into the Oculus Rift headset, it really opens things up and makes you feel like a part of Obama’s entourage at times, more so than with any other media. For example, many people probably saw the iconic video of Marine One transporting the president, carefully lowering into Ahwahnee Meadow for his historic visit, framed by the picturesque mountain peaks in the distance. It looks so quiet and peaceful when seen on video or in a still photograph.

But in the VR simulation, you can look all around, including directly behind you in the other direction. When you do that, you see all the firetrucks, police cars and support personnel positioned and ready in case anything goes amiss. It was really interesting to be able to see “the whole picture” of a presidential visit for the first time.

In another scene, Obama and a park ranger are talking in the woods, and Obama cranes his neck to look up at the impossibly tall trees, which prompted me to also gaze up as well to see what had drawn his attention. Majestic does not begin to describe how beautiful Yosemite National Park is, and being able to experience it in this way, with the president tagging along, is pretty amazing.

If you don’t have access to an Oculus Rift, you can still experience most of the production thanks to a 360-degree video posted on the White House website and on Facebook. As the video plays, simply move your mouse around where you want to look. The canoe section is especially cool for this. It’s not quite as realistic as having a VR headset, but still a really neat experience open to anyone.  

Trying to tone down my fanboy-like excitement for VR technology for a moment, and purely looking at the production from a technical standpoint, it was not all that cutting-edge. It doesn’t compare to something like "The Climb" simulation and was not truly interactive like we have seen with some other VR titles. But what an amazing backdrop it has in Yosemite, and the cast isn’t too shabby either.

My hope is that the Park Service will develop more of these types of VR apps surrounding our national parks. Doing so would allow people to experience a small part of the majesty these places offer regardless of any physical or economic factors that might keep people away. It would also help to show off some of our greatest national treasures in a way no regular photo or movie ever could.