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The Best Part of Watching the Olympics in VR (Hint: It’s Not the Games)

The Best Part of Watching the Olympics in VR (Hint: It’s Not the Games): ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

The Olympic Games have been the proving ground for new TV technology since they debuted on national television back in 1960. This worldwide event ushered us into HDTV, live streaming and, this year, both 4K and virtual reality. NBC has teamed up with Samsung and their Gear VR technology to offer viewers the ultimate you-are-there experience of this year’s spectacle. Much like Rio itself, however, watching the Olympics in VR is not without its challenges.

Cynically speaking, this is a massive push to market Samsung’s products, so those without the appropriate gadgets are left out in the cold. You’ll need a fairly recent Samsung phone, plus its compatible Gear VR headset. From there, download the NBC Sports app in the Oculus to get access to the ever-growing wealth of Olympic content. As of Sunday night, this was mostly just the three-hour-plus opening sequence and a lot of volleyball. NBC will be presenting 85 hours of content between August 6–22, although none of it will be live.

Like most TV streaming apps, the NBC app requires you to already have a TV provider such as DirecTV or Comcast. If you’re a cord-cutting rebel or one of the few remaining diehards who gets their TV over the air, you’re likely left out here. Bizarrely, the NBC Sports VR app is totally disconnected from the regular NBC Sports app, which forces you to log in to your TV provider account through the VR headset.

This is an exercise in frustration. The virtual keyboard was almost sitting on my virtual crotch, while the website with the login fields was above eye level. I constantly had to select a letter and then look up to make sure it was right. Here’s a tip for the future, NBC: make sure people can log in before going into VR.

Once I got past that, I was greeted by a gorgeous 360-degree panoramic view of Rio from above. This is more like it. The interface let me select from the day’s events and offered highlights in addition to full-event videos. It was challenging to actually tell which is which though. All the videos need far better and more specific information about what’s going on.

Still, this is secondary to the main issue with watching the Olympics in VR and streaming VR in general: Streaming 360-degree video is hard. It’s a huge bandwidth hog and requires a really high-end connection. The Gear VR is entirely wi-fi and, in the past, even Samsung has recommended downloading content from their impressive VR video app instead of streaming. Unfortunately, that’s not an option here. The NBC Sports app is streaming only and the video quality is a mess because of it.

It’s possible, and perhaps preferable, to simply turn around and watch the people watching the games.

It was a bit like trying to watch TV without my glasses on. Near stuff looked good, but the farther out it went, the blurrier things got. It created an odd conundrum. For the women’s volleyball, for instance, I could certainly watch the match and take in the action, but good luck discerning the players’ physical details.

It’s important to note that calling this “true VR” is a bit misleading. You’re really just watching 360-degree video from a stationary position and not in 3D, so true depth perception is out. Despite all this, I still found myself enraptured by the spectacle of it all.

Especially the audience.

The 360-degree camera rigs used to film the Olympics are, so far, kept almost entirely in the audience seating. This means you’re getting a real (if blurry) feeling of being a spectator in Rio. It’s an undoubtedly more intimate way to experience the Olympics, since there are people all around you—actual people who probably didn’t consider that they would be immortalized on digital video.

It’s entirely possible, and perhaps preferable, to simply turn around and watch the people watching the games. It’s a strangely voyeuristic experience, because most of the spectators are oblivious to being watching, but there’s usually always someone staring directly at the camera, likely wondering what that’s all about. From my perspective, it feels like those people are staring at me—and, based on some of their expressions, judging me.

Until the technology advances enough to broadcast with a picture quality that compares to at least standard HDTV, watching the Olympics this way is definitely more of a curiosity than a can’t-miss experience. Just the same, the ability to really take in the environment of the Olympics—without the plane ticket or risk of death, disease and awkward smells—is compelling enough to make it worth strapping a phone to your head.

If Samsung or NBC at least updates the app to allow video downloads, that would be a huge step in the right direction. For now, Samsung phone owners should check it out, no one should rush out and upgrade their tech for this. Not yet, anyway.

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