Feb 7, 2022 - Technology

NBC serves up Beijing Olympics in VR

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

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.

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