NBC serves up Beijing Olympics in VR
Most viewers will still get their Olympics fix from traditional broadcasting, but NBC is betting that a cadre of early adopters equipped with Meta's Quest 2 headset will flock to consume 150 hours of live and on-demand content from the Games in VR.
The big picture: With today's headsets becoming more capable and the tech industry pushing new metaverse schemes, VR is gaining new momentum as a platform for mass-media content.
How it works: VR broadcasts provide viewers with a 180-degree view, allowing for more peripheral vision and an immersive feel — but not a full interactive experience in which you can move around.
- The broadcast will switch camera angles at times, such as shifting from mid-ice view to behind the goal in ice hockey.
Details: Those who want to watch have to authenticate that they have a pay TV subscription.
- NBC is delivering the opening and closing ceremonies live along with broadcasts from a half dozen sports, with features and highlights from 10 additional events.
- In an effort to combat the solitary nature of VR viewing, NBC is offering the ability to host a "virtual Olympics watch party" and invite up to three friends to a virtual suite where they can interact and watch live coverage together.
My hands-on report: Watching part of a U.S. women's hockey game, I did feel more like I was in the arena, which for this year meant truly getting a feel for how empty it was (I had lots of flashbacks to what it felt like on the ground for the Tokyo Games).
- The low number of on-the-ground reporters in Beijing means there's less opportunity for true behind-the-scenes footage.
Flashback: A number of companies experimented with VR sports in the mid- 2010s, but the efforts proved to be ahead of their time.
- NextVR, one of the early pioneers, struggled to make a business out of broadcasting sports and concerts and was sold off to Apple in 2020. Apple promptly shut down its consumer-facing app.
Between the lines: While the number of choices for VR sports has dwindled today, the quality of headsets makes it a much better experience than in the past.
- Early VR broadcasts offered significantly lower video quality than standard TV. This year's VR broadcast relies on an 8K video feed, meaning the picture can rival a high-end TV. (It's tough to make an apples-to-apples comparison because VR has to cover a wider field of view and provide content to each eye.)
Yes, but: Other drawbacks of VR still apply. Wearing a headset is isolating. Batteries run out. And watching for long stretches is uncomfortable.
The big picture: NBC's VR streams are made possible because the Olympic Broadcasting Service, which provides feeds to each country's rights-holding network, is providing the underlying stream. Among the other international broadcasters offering a VR option for the Olympics is the BBC.
My thought bubble: The Olympics VR experience is best for packaged highlights where editors focus on the most compelling moments and angles. However, for those who want to feel a little more like they are in the stadium, the technology has started to deliver on more of that promise.
What's next: I'll keep watching what NBC has to offer and report back later in the Games. Be sure to subscribe to Login for that and more on the technology of the Olympics.
Go deeper: How VR missed its pandemic moment