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Seeing through the hologram: network TV's ridiculous election technology

CNN Virtual Senate

In 2008, CNN’s reporting of the presidential election was overshadowed by its "hologram": a ring of 35 cameras projected correspondent Jessica Yellin from Chicago to Wolf Blitzer’s New York studio. While not technically a true hologram, it was certainly impressive, evoking Star Wars’ Princess Leia — who would be referenced endlessly in the coming days. But as CNN called state after state, my friends and I weren’t amused. We were there to see the race, not a gimmick that was indistinguishable from special effects on a TV screen. Four years later, the technological spectacle will be even bigger, and just as unrelated to actual changes in reporting.

A 'Virtual Senate' will superimpose correspondents onto a slightly uncanny rendering of the Senate floor

While we probably won’t know everything CNN is planning until voting ends, so far the network has announced not only the requisite touchscreens and infographics (some of which will be displayed on the Empire State Building) but a "Virtual Senate," which will superimpose correspondents and title placards onto a slightly uncanny rendering of the Senate floor. NBC, meanwhile, plans to track electoral votes with an augmented reality display, and it’s modified the Rockefeller Center ice rink to "hold an enormous map of the United States, where individual states will ice over in red or blue as the race is called." ABC is more muted, but its election coverage still incorporates an 82-inch touchscreen and what the team calls a "Minority Report" transparent display.

As much as news media has focused on incorporating social media into its reporting, the election studio remains a haven for failed visions of future tech. For one day every four years (or, to a lesser extent, every two), networks are given a captive audience, willing to wait for hours as a series of fairly dry numbers trickle in. They respond by creating a sort of fantasy newsroom, interspersing crowd shots and analyst predictions with charts and interfaces that suggest reporters are guiding a very large red or blue shuttle to its resting place in the White House.

The election studio remains a haven for failed visions of future tech

Some pieces are simple pageantry — nobody’s going to suggest using an ice rink for everyday news. Others, meanwhile, are the kind of technology that’s been developed, salivated over... and quietly disregarded as people realized how infrequently it was actually useful. Massive touchscreens have been produced for years, but they’re almost exclusively seen when watching a science fiction movie or a tech demo. Though it certainly gives the impression of an interactive newsroom, watching someone use augmented reality through a TV set isn’t all that different from just looking at a screen overlay.

The 2012 election is proof that news outlets can push reporting to fresh places. The New York Times has built an interactive map of swing states, something that both looks great and offers real insight. NBC is using Instagram to collect images of the election, and almost every major network has a dedicated correspondent for analyzing social media — or has partnered directly with Facebook or Twitter. Tonight, though, tools that actually add to the conversation will likely take a backseat to flashy attempts to mimic a Hollywood future.

The Verge
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