Democrats Agreed to Have Their Debate Broadcast Live in Virtual Reality

That’s a terrible idea.

Democratic Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
Why did Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton agree to a debate broadcast in virtual reality?

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photos by Scott Eisen/Getty Images and Darren McCollester/Getty Images.

The Democratic presidential candidates set to face off Tuesday night on CNN in their first debate have taken great pains to script their answers and pick the perfect poll-tested wardrobe. And yet, without knowing it, they have opened themselves up to a technology that they don’t understand and that could make them vulnerable to untold gaffes and blunders.

For the first time, a major news event will be broadcast live in virtual reality. CNN is partnering with a virtual reality company to enable viewers at home to feel like they are actually at the Las Vegas debate.

Granted, only a few hundred thousand people in the United States have virtual reality headsets at home, and of those who do, it could be a far smaller number who will actually watch Hillary Clinton square off against her main challengers Sen. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. But there is a risk that one or more of the candidates could look less than flattering, and that the image could go viral, creating an awkward storyline the candidates would typically want to avoid.

The fascinating question for me is why did the candidates agree to this when there is nothing to gain by participating in a debate broadcast in virtual reality?

New technologies bring new risks. In the first televised presidential debate in 1960, Richard Nixon’s ashen and sweaty appearance and frumpy ill-fitting suit made him look like he’d been “embalmed … before he even died,” then–Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley said while the dapper, bronze-complexioned John F. Kennedy appeared the clear winner, even though most viewers agreed that Nixon performed better on the issues.

It may be a stretch to call this a potential Nixon moment, especially this early in the Democratic primary. But virtual reality presents a separate set of challenges that the candidates likely haven’t considered.

First, if Clinton or Sanders wants to win in the virtual reality version of this debate, they’d better negotiate for the middle podium. In live-streamed, stereoscopic video—a cutting-edge technology that will be used Tuesday night—typically there is a sweet spot.

Toward the edges, a viewer will see less depth, something like seeing out of one eye. Close one eye and look down at your hands on the keyboard for 20 seconds. Then open your eyes and, “pop,” you will see the benefits of stereoscopic vision. 

Candidates closer to the center of the camera’s field of view will literally stand out more than those on the edges. A reach toward the camera by a candidate on the periphery may make his or her arm look stubby.

On the flipside, candidates can’t hide. The viewers will get to choose where they look, unlike the regular television viewing audience which relies on the CNN producer to decide on the camera angles. In virtual reality, those who want to spend two hours scrutinizing Sanders’ every facial tic and micro-movement can do so. The probability of YouTube-viral gaffes just went through the roof.

Then there is the issue of time. Candidates shouldn’t just lobby to stand in the center of the stage—they must speak first. Virtual reality displays can cause simulator sickness. Over time, a person’s visual system gets fatigued triggering nausea, dizziness, and disorientation. I have researched the psychological impact of virtual reality for almost two decades, and to date I haven’t worn a head-mounted display for more than 30 minutes. Tolerance for simulator sickness varies across people, but watching a two-hour debate in virtual reality will make many people feel ill.

CNN is trying to be a pioneer in a technology that is about to go mainstream. That is admirable. But this is the wrong experiment. Live-streamed virtual reality is a brand new technology, and there are bound to be some hiccups. Perhaps a pointing gesture will get distorted into a plastic man–like stretch, or a lean toward the camera will get exaggerated in depth and cause a horror-show flinch response by the audience. Remember, the volume of a scream—“Yaaahhh!!”— was enough to end Howard Dean’s campaign. 

Virtual reality’s great promise is its ability to take you to places you can’t go in the real world. In my lab at Stanford University, you put on a head-mounted display and are at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea seeing what climate change’s impact on the coral reef and fish looks like. We make you feel like you are seeing the world’s greatest art up close. We let you see your future, older self to help you plan for retirement.

Used properly, virtual reality is poised to transform the way we engage with our world and with each other. A political debate is not one of those scenarios. The bottom line is that just because an event can be experienced in virtual reality, doesn’t mean it should be. At best, Tuesday night’s virtual reality broadcast will simply produce boredom. At worst, it will produce an unscripted moment that will make a candidate wish the debate had only been broadcast the old-fashioned way.