Real-Time VR Went Prime Time At The 2018 Winter Olympics, But Was It Ready?

360-video experiences were available at the Rio Olympics in 2016, but for PyeongChang, they stepped it up a notch broadcasting VR in real-time. Halfway through the Winter Games, is the wow-factor working?

For the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, Intel and NBC teamed up to deliver 30 Olympic events in virtual reality, 18 of them streamed live and presented in 180-degree stereoscopic video via the Intel True VR app. That's more than 50 hours of live virtual reality coverage.

Virtual reality isn't new to the Olympics—they experimented with 360-video at the Rio Summer Games. But real-time VR programming is a first for the Winter Olympics and an exciting step toward what might become the future of main-stream media viewing. Yet one week into the PyeongChang Games, it seems this technology still has a long way to go before it's fully optimized for prime-time viewing.

The application makes total sense. The Olympic stage demands global viewership like nothing else and yet only a lucky few when it comes to worldwide population will ever attend in person. Even more, getting inches away from the action is a right reserved for the world's top athletes, their coaches, and the media. Virtual reality broadcasting bridges this gap and provides VIP viewing to the masses.

Ever dreamed about standing on the sidelines at the Olympic Sliding Centre and experiencing the rush of luge? Or do you wonder what it's like to compete in the men's cross-country 15k? Intel's True VR Olympic programming aimed to bring you into those moments.

Couple that will following some of your favorite Olympic athletes (Shaun White, Nathan Chen, Lindsey Vonn) on Instagram and tuning into their stories, and we're able to experience the Games like never before. At least in theory.

The Instagram Stories are great and do provide a really interesting behind the scenes, unscripted account of what it's really like for an athlete at the Winter Olympics. But the VR experience leaves a lot to be desired.

First, the system

For hardware in the field, Intel's True VR camera pods decorate the slopes and rinks. Each pod houses 12 4K cameras and streams 180-degree, panoramic, stereoscopicVR content in real time at a rate of 1TB of data per hour using fiber optic cables and high compute servers.

To deliver that content to the end viewer, Intel collaborated with the Olympic Broadcasting Service on developing an app for all Winter Olympics VR events. You can download the NBC Sports app and watch in virtual reality via Gear VR, Windows Mixed Reality, Daydream, Oculus, Google Cardboard, or even without a viewer, in 180 or 360-degree video on your iPhone or Android device.

What we thought was cool

Perspective and scale.

Watching the snowboard halfpipe finals in VR is insane. It really is the next best thing to standing right there on the halfpipe deck. On TV, you just can't quite grasp how fast the athletes are riding, the towering heights at which they soar above the halfpipe lip, and really how big those halfpipe walls are. Through VR, the scale of it all hits you hard.

Where does the Olympic VR miss the mark?

When you're used to watching ultra high definition video on TV, your laptop, or a smart phone, the first thing you'll notice is the picture quality. While better than it was in Rio, the video is nothing close to crystal clear. And sometimes so pixelated or blurry it is disorienting.

Speaking of disorienting, without curated camera angles, it can be very difficult to locate the action. When you do find it, there are two issues. First, the feed is not without it's glitches and may occasionally drop out. Second, and probably the bigger annoyance, is that whether you're watching skating, skiing, or luging, winter sports are extremely fast and typically cover a lot of ground. So when you're watching from a few stationary True VR camera pods, the action is never much more than a blur rushing past your viewpoint.

We understand the VR experience isn't trying to be TV, but when the other option is a high-def nicely zoomed follow-cam, that's the better choice.

"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."MIT Technology Review

Is VR the future?

With Olympic viewership waning and the cost of airing rights rising, might immersive content and the live digital sphere be where broadcast networks turn their attention?

It's likely, yes, that Olympic viewing experiences will continue to transform and trend this way. Networks like NBC and companies like Intel both understand that the more viewers can engage and interact with Olympic content the better. But in 2018, for the Winter Olympics, we're definitely still in the experimental phase.

Intel's True VR PyeongChang broadcast is certainly worth checking out, but you're probably better off not watching the rest of the Games through Google Cardboard.

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