Thoughts on The Olympics in VR by Humaneyes Technologies
By Jim Malcolm, General Manager of North America for Humaneyes Technologies
The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang this year were a marvelous spectacle, and not just because of Mirai Nagasu’s history-making triple axel (or Red Gerard’s gold-medal winning potty mouth). These were the first Olympics to be livestreamed in virtual reality (VR), and what transpired was an absolutely monumental feat in the development of VR broadcasting.
But you probably thought it sucked.
That’s the general consensus if you read the headlines. “If NBC can’t improve its VR Olympics coverage, it should just stop,” reads one article in a prominent tech outlet. “Seriously horrible,” says the top Google Play user review of the NBC Sports VR app — which itself carries an average user rating of less than 2 out of 5.
This experiment in livestreaming VR by NBC and Intel wasn’t well received by the general public — and that’s a shame, because the technical achievements that powered this simply can’t be understated. They created 4K camera systems that did not just live broadcast one 3D feed, but the 6 or 8 feeds needed to support display in VR headsets. And to make things even more complex, they had to do this at a distance, which meant developing appropriate lenses and refining optic technologies that may not have existed prior to this event.
Yet despite these advances, users aren’t wrong to feel disappointed. A bad experience is a bad experience. But rather than blaming the platform, it’s important to understand why their experience was bad. As the first livestreamed VR broadcast for most users, the resulting assumption is that VR livestreaming in general is bad. But the problem isn’t the tech; it’s that we aren’t using the tech in support of what matters most – telling an interesting story.
Take a moment to think about the last great sports event you watched on television. If someone had just set up a camera, turned on the broadcast, and walked away, would that have been a great viewing experience? Of course not. But that’s essentially the way VR livestreams are currently being presented — as a raw feed for viewers to experience: the world exactly as it exists, presented in 360, 270 or even 180-degree stereoscopic 3D.
But sports are about so much more than just the action itself. There’s drama, there’s commentary, there’s replays…I could go on forever. By the time you’re done watching the SuperBowl, you know everything there is to know about the teams, their histories, their rivalries, and what food the mayor of one town plans to send the other when they win. In a word, broadcast sports are about one thing: storytelling. And this is something that VR broadcasters have failed to embrace. Putting up a camera and walking away isn’t a sports broadcast: it’s a well-placed security camera that just happens to feature snowboarders.
So how do we change this as an industry? There’s no right answer to that question yet, and that’s what makes this period in VR history so exciting. The opportunity to define the VR broadcasting landscape is ripe for the taking. Experimentation will eventually lead to an industry standard, but until then, absolutely nothing is off the table. Maybe the broadcast booth exists as a cut in your feed, shown only to the viewer at a certain angle. Maybe there are key camera positions that heighten the sense of immersion. Maybe it’s how the chyron is presented — we know the chyron standards on television, but what could stats and extra information look like in a fully 3D environment?
The trick is to give users a chance to get lost in the experience. Normally when we talk about immersion in VR, we’re talking about how well the experience can trick your brain into feeling like something is the real deal. Games that have you walk the plank off the top of a skyscraper can leave your knees shaking. But when it comes to broadcasts in VR, maybe we need to use the word “immersion” less and “engagement” more. Rather than just trying to recreate the experience of being at the Olympics, we need to recreate the experience of watching them. Viewers want to be entertained, and if they’re entertained, they’re engaged.
Here’s the sorry truth: standing around on a hill waiting for someone to swoop by quickly on a pair of skis — even if you’ve flown halfway around the world to do it — isn’t nearly as engaging as following that skier down the mountain, knowing where they’re from and how hard they’ve trained to get there, and why it matters that they unseat whoever is expected to win the gold. That, in a nutshell, is storytelling.
The technology that powered the 2018 Olympics VR experience is breathtaking, but it still has a long way to go. For VR broadcasts to become a staple of our viewing habits, we’re going to need to see improved image quality in headsets along with a host of other improvements. But changes like these are inevitable. More important than technical improvements, we need VR broadcasters to shift their thinking; to embrace the role of auteur. Livestreamed sports in VR can be amazing, but only if we begin to think about the storytelling aspects that have made television sports a success for decades.
Jim Malcolm brings more than two decades of imaging, virtual reality (VR) and consumer products experience to his role as General Manager, North America, at Humaneyes Technologies. In addition to establishing the business operations of the company in North America, Jim is responsible for managing the launch and success of their Vuze+ VR Camera, the company’s 3D-360 degree VR solution. Jim’s accomplished career and passion for consumer electronic technologies led him to serve on the board of directors for the Consumer Technology Association. He is also founder of Xiality, a visual imaging company which focuses on resolving technology hurdles that are slowing the adoption of VR applications.