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I thought VR would make watching Olympic snowboarding awesome. Sadly, it sucked.

Virtual-reality programming for the Winter Olympics shows there’s still a long way to go before the tech is ready for prime time.
February 15, 2018
Cameron Spencer | Getty

Like a lot of people, I was glued to a live broadcast from the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics the other night, watching American snowboarding phenom Chloe Kim kick competitors’ butts in the women’s half-pipe finals. Unlike most other spectators, though, I saw powder fly with a virtual-reality headset strapped to my face.

VR sounds like a great way to check out this kind of enormous international sports event. The Winter Olympics are typically too expensive and far away to attend in person, and even if you do get there and snag tickets for the events you want to see, you might not have a good view of the action. You’re also going to be freezing cold.

I’d rather just go there virtually while sitting in my climate-controlled living room in the US, and NBC is happy to oblige with its NBC Sports VR app, which works with a range of VR headsets (you also have to log in with your cable provider). Over the two weeks of the games—which started February 9 and run through February 25—NBC is working with Intel and Olympic Broadcasting Services, which produces video of the games, to pump out more than 50 hours of live events viewable in VR, from snowboarding to curling to figure skating, as well as prerecorded clips.

This is the second time NBC has used VR to present the Olympics, but the first time that it’s streaming events as they happen via a VR app. I’m not a big fan of winter sports, but I was curious to see whether the real-time VR coverage could pique my excitement. So I spent a few days watching as much as I could on a Google Daydream headset with a compatible smartphone.

I saw curling and snowboarding live in VR and watched videos about bobsledding, downhill skiing, ski-jumping, and more. It was occasionally exhilarating, as when Shaun White blew past me on a half-pipe, or when I hitched a virtual ride on a bobsled and flew down the track. And it was neat to be able to switch my view from one VR camera perspective to another while watching some events.

Mostly, however, my virtual adventure proved that in early 2018, VR is at a weird juncture: while it’s cheaper and more widely available than ever before, it’s still not great at transforming visual experiences for the masses.

When it comes to spectacles like the Olympics, content creators still aren’t sure how to shoot compelling VR footage or how best to present their content to us. And it remains hard to watch for more than a few minutes, with annoying glitches and image quality that’s still far below what you get on a flat screen.

The first thing I realized was that while the resolution of virtual-reality videos appears to be better than it was at the 2016 Summer Olympics, it’s still pretty terrible. (My husband tried on the headset to check out a live stream, made some angry noises, and then handed it back to me.)

I could see big features like the snowy Pyeongchang landscape, athletes’ bodies, their sports gear, and close-up objects like the temporary plastic fencing that the VR cameras are often placed behind outdoors. But faces were impossible to pick out unless I was watching in a special “VR Cast” mode that automatically decided which VR camera view to show me; it included a virtual big-screen TV displaying close-ups of the athletes. To make matters worse, the stream regularly cut out.

It also quickly became clear that events you’d think would be cool to watch live in VR don’t always work so well, for a number of reasons. I figured that half-pipe snowboarding, a fast-paced, spin-filled event, would look awesome. But things happened so quickly that the athletes were rarely more than blurs rushing past my vantage point, no matter where I stationed myself along the course. And the changing light outdoors at the time of the event made it even harder to see what was going on.

To my surprise, curling was much better suited to live VR viewing, because it took place indoors on a flat surface and there were only a few people participating at any given time. The lighting was consistent, it was easier to see more action from any vantage point, and there was plenty of time for me to switch from one camera view to another without missing much. (It still bored me just as much as watching it on a flat screen, though—sorry, curling!)

I’m hoping NBC, Intel, and OBS build better VR experiences for future Olympics. Here’s my list of things to fix:

  • First and foremost, beef up the image quality. Nobody wants to watch fuzzy athletes.
  • Use more 360° cameras. The live events I saw from Pyeongchang were filmed with a 180° camera view, which doesn’t provide an immersive experience. The short “highlight” videos, on the other hand, were shot with 360° cameras. Using these all the time would make a big difference.
  • Think hard about where the cameras should be positioned. It might not make sense to set one at the top of a snowy slope where athletes will quickly barrel past, or in a spot where people might wander in front of them.
  • Show more live events and really think hard about what prerecorded videos to offer. If I’m going to go through the trouble of downloading an app and putting on a VR headset, I want to see something special. Live events give VR viewers a sense of urgency.

I’ll check out the Olympics in VR again in 2020, when the games head to Tokyo, but I’m planning to tune in to the 2018 closing ceremony on a TV.

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