Olympic Games VR Recap: virtual reality will change how we experience sports.
Over 100 hours of 360-degree video programming is being created for the 2016 Olympics. After testing VR video during the 2016 Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the Olympic Broadcasting Service (OBS) is now providing daily 360-degree coverage of Olympic events in Rio.
OBS uses custom, multi-directional rigs to record stereoscopic video and will produce two types of content:
Daily Highlights: Short videos distributed with a one-day delay, free for anyone to access
Complete Events: Live and pre-recorded broadcasts (sometimes several hours long) via VOD services, requires sign-in through a cable provider
Due to the sheer mass of Olympic events, only the most popular events are being filmed in VR - the opening and closing ceremonies, men’s basketball, gymnastics, track and field, beach volleyball, diving, boxing and fencing. The footage is distributed through international broadcasters such as NBC Universal in the US and BBC in the UK.
NBC partnered with Samsung to exclusively release VR content onto the Gear VR headset. In order to access the footage, you’ll have to download the NBC Sports App (accessible in the Google Play store) onto a Samsung smartphone (such as the Galaxy S7, Galaxy S7 Edge, Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 Edge, Galaxy S6 Edge+, Galaxy Note 5, Galaxy Note 7) and then open the app on the headset.
BBC also has an app to watch the Olympics in VR - the BBC Sport 360 App - which can be watched on Samsung-compatible devices with a Gear VR (like the NBC app) or on other VR mobile headsets with Android or iOS devices. Unfortunately, the app is not available in the US but BBC has a “taster” experience online where you can view 360 videos clips from your browser. BBC also has a YouTube channel to watch VR online, but none of the videos are available in the US.
Some of our favorite coverage was from the boxing matches. These videos are the best quality, and the camera is positioned right outside of the ring to provide an extra close-up experience.
Sports VR Video Challenges
While virtually transporting viewers to live sports events offers many possibilities for bringing audiences closer to the action, sports VR faces some serious challenges that detract from the experience.
Over the weekend, Pixvana's Mike Swanson filtered through the footage and offered some feedback about why creating and delivering high quality VR sports content is so demanding.
With today's limited video and display resolution, it's a serious challenge to achieve sharp, high-definition footage. Scenes appear soft and pixelated, and it can be difficult to tell athletes apart and focus on details in scenes.
The Olympic highlight footage is broadcast a day after the actual events take place. This delay means that many viewers already know who won the event, and the critical elements of suspense and surprise both disappear. For live-streamed events (accessible only through a paid cable provider), dealing with multiple time zones can make it difficult to know when to watch. Fortunately, the NBC app can send alerts to let viewers know when a live stream begins.
Camera position is essential for building spatial immersion in VR, but it can be tough to obtain secure camera locations for sporting events. This challenge is especially visible at the Olympics. For the volleyball matches, the camera is situated next to an empty stand. The judge’s back faces the VR viewer and the net is almost invisible. During some track events, the camera shows the start of a race but the viewer loses visibility of the contestants as they move around the field. Finding a good, fixed camera position is critical to a successful VR video.
Live-streaming adds even more complexity to the equation. With larger frame sizes, the machines that encode the video for streaming often have to sacrifice quality to maintain a reasonable bandwidth. This is especially true with sports that contain fast-moving subjects. As VR displays improve in quality and resolution, streaming high quality, immersive video will become even more difficult.