The golf reporter was so excited. There he was in the Augusta National press room, vibrating in the very over-caffeinated state required for coverage of such marathon events as the 2016 Masters Tournament, making an intensely committed declaration. He would never report on golf the same way again! Ditch the sunblock, forget the mosquito repellent, leave that sun visor slung over the back of the chair — this intrepid veteran of the green was barreling toward a new indoor career: “I am resigning from reality-based journalism.”
He was still so fresh, so renewed from witnessing the first-ever live VR stream of the action happening outside on the sixth green, he could do little else but extoll to his Golf magazine audience the “mind-blowing, are-you-kidding-me, WTF exhibition of a live-streaming technology that is about to change your life.”
Because it’s VR. And VR has come to live sports.
Or has it? Though that reporter was obviously impressed with how intense it is to be immersed in close-up, 360-degree video of golf action, his euphoric account also includes a glancing caveat about the feed being “grainy,” not-actually-HD video resolution. There were small cracks.
By contrast, I, far from the panacea of an Augusta National press room, had experienced far greater cracks. In a convention hall technology demo room where I was granted the pleasure of putting on my face a sweaty VR headset, odiferously evincing its many previous users, I had a catastrophically different reaction to live sports in VR — a smellotron displaying shrunk athletes running in a blurry pixelated image limited by mobile phone resolution. And, to note, that wasn’t my first time to be “immersed” in VR content. I have reported on various permutations of this technology over the past couple of decades, and during that time also built up a quite severe doubt of the sports-streaming side of the tech. It’s just not ready yet. But there’s plenty of teams of tech geeks knocking down people’s doors and shouting it is. So, I let two — Jaunt and NextVR — in.
I posited that an immersive VR video experience can make me feel like I had the super-best tickets to every game.
Despite my inherent skepticism, aged over years in dark demo rooms populated by apathetic consumer-electronics journalists, I will confess to feeling a certain thrill in the prospect of watching live sports on something other than my tiny 11-inch laptop screen (philistine!) via individually purchased online viewing packages (cable-cutter!). Who knows, maybe having a simulated, big-screen, event-day experience would make me love VR too?
Disengaging my cynicism filters, engaging my rabid sports-fan-self, I posited that an immersive VR video experience can make me feel like I had the super-best tickets to every game. Especially if I was sitting on my sofa at home, watching something I loved, instead of enduring randomly selected content in a stale demo room.
To prepare for this new kind of game day, I engaged in some rigorous training on a sofa at the TriBeCa Film Festival, where I witnessed some glorious VR sports storytelling produced by Jaunt. Jaunt does not deliver live sports streaming, but it does use its specialized stereoscopic camera and post-production techniques to create fully immersive video that can take sports fans behind the scenes.
When the Jaunt demo started and my viewpoint was transferred to the deep green outfield of AT&T Park for the San Francisco Giants’ batting practice, sure enough, I did experience that oddly specific, real-life adrenaline rush of giddiness from being athletically starstruck. The sensory input was so complete, the players “right there,” life-size in front of me, grumbling bro-y banter. When I heard a baseball plunking into a glove right next to me, I had to turn my head to watch for the next throw.
I was quickly, completely taken in. Show me the goggle sports. I want the free, stay-at-home version of courtside, sideline, behind-home-plate, anything closer than nosebleed action. And this VR streaming content can still be enjoyed for free at this point, because investors and sponsors are happy to pick up the bill to build an audience.
Searching for live streamers, I discovered that two VR content companies are emerging as the connection between sports broadcasters, leagues and teams. First, there’s NextVR, which earlier this year delivered the NCAA Big East Tournament and the 2016 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in live-streamed VR glory, and also recently signed a five-year development deal with Fox Sports that will result in a slate of new programming for the fall of 2016.
I was quickly, completely taken in. Show me the goggle sports. I want the free, stay-at-home version of courtside, sideline, behind-home-plate action.
And then there’s Voke, which picked up where NextVR left off after the Big East tourney and streamed the NCAA March Madness finals this year. Voke also has development deals with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and the NBA’s Sacramento Kings to “redefine the gameday experience,” with a multi-faceted in-stadium app and VR offerings.
As for hardware, NextVR works exclusively with Samsung’s higher-end Android devices and the accompanying Gear VR headset. Voke is more widely compatible, supporting Android and iOS platforms and whatever headset you want to use. But, NextVR has the wider breadth of live sports events available for streaming, so I sought out a demo with their content and the duo of Samsung gear.
And so it was time to get personal with VR sports content. In my own home. Hiding from the rest of humanity on my own sofa while I donned the atrociously ugly standard-issue headsets that still plague the earth as we await the introduction of way more glamorous options this holiday season. All while trying to sip beer without bumping the goggles, or maybe just trying to see the beer through the goggles. (Note from the Future: That turned out to be impossible. Until we get the Microsoft HoloLens, Magic Leap or some other AR version of VR headsets, we’ll probably be taking off the goggles every time we need anything in “R”.)
Technologic limitations aside, I donned the goggles and prepared to watch a full sporting event, live, for its entire duration, bravely testing the principle of whether a spectator would ever want to be held captive in that way. I accepted NextVR’s invitation to watch the Kentucky Derby — “the most exciting two minutes in sports” — streamed live in VR.
This might be a good place to mention that “VR” in this case is not really virtual reality, but rather 360-degree video. True VR is computer-generated, interactive content. This live sports content, captured with NextVR’s 360-degree stereoscopic cameras, is really just immersive video, capturing the entire scene around the camera.
At any rate, the Kentucky Derby was to be my first live sports VR/360 viewing event. There was to be a couple hours’ worth of Derby programming wrapped around those two riveting minutes, and I’d be able to rack up some hours with the headset.
I fluffed up the pillows, winced at the lack of ceremony in my empty living room, then left the real world and disappeared behind my digital blindfold. I couldn’t invite friends over to witness the occasion, because I only had one headset, and frankly, I didn’t want to be seen in my lesser VR-headset-donning human form.
After some technical fiddling to get a NextVR loaner Samsung S7 into the GearVR headset, I figured out where to plug in the headphones and wrestled with the velcro straps alongside and across the top of my head. Eventually, I was locked on.
NextVR recommends a wi-fi connection for optimal viewing, and there was no Derby until connected. Then, from a menu of sports and concert events in the NextVR app menu, I selected the pony coverage. Suddenly, I was whisked away to box seats, right above the finish line.
As soon as the crowd of hats and bowties came into view, I was able to refute one of the arguments I heard most when I told people I was watching live sports in VR: What about the people-watching? It was there. All I had to do was swivel my begoggled head around and I saw plenty of mint juleps and selfie-takers, just like I was at the race.
I really did feel like I was there. Sure, it was boring at points, the headset hurt, and I couldn’t get enough beer, but aren’t those always the pains experienced by bleacher-bound spectators everywhere?
Next I watched through NextVR’s cuts to randomly rotating close-ups and birds-eye views of the grounds (someday you’ll be able to select your favorite view, says NextVR), horse handlers and fancy people alike wandering across the grounds. NextVR occasionally piped into my headphones pre-race commentary from NBC Sports (NextVR partnered with the network for the event), but the majority of audio was the quiet murmur of the crowd around me.
The effect? It made me feel, well, lonely. Like I wasn’t actually watching a sports broadcast, but rather some random robot view that put me in primo spots but in a silent, solitary viewing mode. To gain some humanity, I tried to think of other NextVR users, on their couches, struggling to drink their beers, also silently watching that same view. It did little to allay the feeling.
Then, without any commentary, or anything sports-broadcasty, the main event began. It happened — the most exciting two minutes in sports! — and was over. And I sat there thinking: that’s it? Yes, it’s cool to see a live event directly in front of my face, but with current mobile phone display technology reducing NextVR’s 6K resolution per eye to a meager 1,000 pixels per eye, things were blurry, no matter how much I swiveled the focus knob on the Gear VR. And, something about the 360-degree video live capture and streaming process seemed to shrink the horses and humans (not just the jockeys, for the record), so that they seemed far away even when the view was close up. During the race, the ponies were very distant, causing me to squint fiercely inside the headset until the 120 seconds were over.
There on my sofa, suffering the effects of eye strain and a sad inability to sip beer in a relaxed fashion, I felt like I’d missed the race, until I glanced upward in my headset view and saw the NBC Sports replay of the highlights. It was like turning on a TV in a video void. In that replay I saw the close-ups, the flying dirt and hooves, the expressions of triumph and failure. Turns out, sports broadcasters still have the best angles, captured by telephoto lenses instead of 360-degree stereoscopic cameras.
In the redeeming-factors category of VR/360 broadcasting, I did indeed discover some truth to an oft-repeated virtual reality myth: I really did talk about the race as if I was there. The proof came later, when a friend was scrolling through Snapchat snippets from the race, and muttered, “Did it rain?” I found myself answering with the qualified voice of someone who was there: “Yeah, it rained like crazy for a little bit, but then stopped and the sun came back out.”
Until live capture and streaming can deliver the type of intimacy we’ve come to expect from television broadcasts, it might not be the best way to watch a whole game.
The trick sank in. I really did feel like I was there. Sure, it was boring at points, the headset hurt, and I couldn’t get enough beer, but aren’t those always the pains experienced by bleacher-bound spectators everywhere?
The great promise of live sports in VR, as NextVR’s co-founder Dave Cole is often quoted as saying, is that it’s like having the best tickets to any event. Having streamed live VR events in boxing, golf, basketball, soccer and hockey, and tested the process with other sports in the US and internationally, Cole observed that in particular, “any court or rink game is exquisite.” Because with the 360-degree camera placement, “it gives the fan the experience of being even closer to the action than you could possibly get, no matter how expensive the seat.”
But, from where I sat with my clunky headset, I’d say that until live capture and streaming can deliver the type of intimacy we’ve come to expect from television broadcasts, it might not be the best way to watch a whole game.
Cliff Plumer, president of Jaunt, the non-live sports VR producer, agrees. “With VR, the viewpoint represents you as the user or the fan, standing on sideline, courtside or in the stands — it sounds cool to be there right on the field, but it’s really not the best place to watch a game.” You just can’t get close enough, and the real-life downsides of being stuck in a seat when the action moves down the field are even more exaggerated in VR.
So, I inquired to Plumer, when are fans going to sit at home and watch an entire game in VR? “That’s a ways out there for many reasons, including, obviously, wearing the goggles as they are today for two to three hours.” Plus, I will add, goggle-stink.
What we will see is a whole new batch of mobile-phone-compatible VR headsets coming out this winter, with sleek new designs like Avegant’s Glyph, or at the very least, a tiny bit more refined like the Zeiss VR One Plus. That will improve comfort and the glamour factor a little bit, but as for adapting to live sports in VR? That might be too much work.
Because at base, we watch sports to relax, to be with other people, to forget what happened earlier that day and what we’re supposed to do tomorrow. And that is best done on the couch, with friends and easily drinkable beer, and not blocking out the reality next to us. For now, the commentated, story-like experience of top sports broadcasting is better than life with goggles on. But that only remains until VR can give us that POV so close to the starting gates that we feel like we might actually have to wipe the mud from our goggles, leaving us convinced that we’ll never have to go outside again.