Giving the VR Olympics another chance
Diving deeper into the VR broadcast of the Olympics beyond my first look, I found there was even more to discover and appreciate about its unique view into the Beijing games — but also a longer list of downsides.
Why it matters: Virtual reality has the potential to bring people both closer to the action and deeper behind the scenes. At the same time, it can be more isolating, tiring and blurry than watching a broadcast on a nice TV.
Details: While I had taken NBC's Olympics VR Olympics app for a spin earlier in the games, I wanted to see how it would feel to watch a highly anticipated event in VR. For that, I chose Wednesday night's gold medal women's hockey game between the U.S. and Canada, watching the first period in VR and the second and third period on TV.
How it works: The NBC Olympics VR experience is a dedicated app running on a Meta Quest.
- For hockey, the app gives viewers a seat in a photo box right at center ice. People can watch the action from that vantage point or look up, near where an overhead scoreboard would be, and watch the broadcast view that people watching on TV see.
- An option I missed in my first go-around with the app allows viewers to drop NBC's virtual suite in favor of a full 360-degree view. While I rarely turned far enough around for it to matter, I'd rather have the full stadium to look at than a cartoonish set.
- It's a great seat. You are right at center ice, in between the two teams' benches. When I looked left, I saw the U.S. players and coaches, while the Canadian team was on my right.
- You see more of the event. Watching at least some of the action in VR helped me deal with my FOMO of not being physically at the games. I didn't just see the action on the ice, but also photographers taking pictures and the crews that shoveled ice between whistles.
- You feel like you are there. Having a specific seat and point of view is a grounding experience that is much closer to attending an event than watching it on TV.
- Multitasking is tough. It's hard not just to, say, work and watch TV, but also to grab a snack or text with friends who are also watching the game, which I found myself lifting up the headset to do.
- It's a less relaxing experience. There's more mental work you have to perform in VR, like figuring out where to look. I missed the benefit of curation by experienced TV directors that keeps you close to the action.
- There's a bit more delay. This wasn't a huge deal, especially because I was in my bubble while wearing the headset, but I was on the order of 10 to 15 seconds behind where the action was on the TV broadcast.
- The overhead view is a great option, especially when the puck was close to either net, where my view was the blurriest. However, the TV broadcast had the action going one direction while my view was the other. That both broke the realism and made for more work when trying to locate the action on the ice.
The bottom line: The VR experience appeals to me less as a way to watch a game than it is to get a feel for what it is like to be there: the mostly empty stands, the signage, the photographers. But it only takes a few minutes in the headset to get that. Overall, TV provides a sharper, more pleasant way to watch a game.