If NBC can’t improve its VR Olympics coverage, it should just stop

Rivals like NextVR have set the bar much higher.

If you're watching the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics on TV like a normal person, you may not realize there's another option. I viewed the opening ceremonies, skiing, curling, figure skating and other events in virtual reality on my Samsung Gear VR (2017) headset via NBC's app. I didn't expect the coverage to be as smooth as TV, but I thought it would be a cool way to watch the events as if I were a live spectator. Sadly, with one exception, the experience was spotty and disappointing.

During the Rio Games in 2016, NBC broadcast the Olympic opening ceremonies in virtual reality for the first time, so I tuned in to have a look. It was a solid start: Despite problems like poor resolution, I felt like I was there, not watching on TV. Two years is a long time for tech like VR, so when NBC and Intel announced they'd cover the opening ceremonies and several live events once again in 2018, my expectations were higher.

Accessing the Games in VR in the US is relatively smooth, provided you have a live TV/cable option and the right headset. Among the models that will work are the Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream and Windows Mixed Reality headsets. (I have a Gear VR and Galaxy S8 smartphone.)

You simply install NBC's app at the Oculus, Microsoft or Google Play store and enter the name of your cable provider, along with a username and password. This grants you access to live coverage of several events per day, along with full replays of those events as well as the opening ceremonies and highlights of others. Some broadcasts are available in 180-degree 3D VR, and others in 360 degrees and 2D.

Once you're set up, the fun (and problems) begin. On the Gear VR, every time you want to tune in -- and even when you want to change sports -- you have to go through an annoying intro. The app is also pretty glitchy, and I was often greeted with a black screen when loading sports. The only way to fix it was to quit the app and go back in.

The first event I wanted to watch was men's downhill skiing. Unfortunately, it was canceled due to high winds, so I watched the training run instead to get a taste of it. This was probably the worst event to view on this technology. Both the downhill and giant slalom are ill-suited to VR, at least the way NBC handled it. The skiers zoom by the fixed camera positions in blink-or-you'll-miss-them blurs, so the only real way to follow it is via the "VR Cast" mode, with cameras controlled by a director. It does give you an idea of what it's like to be a spectator, albeit without the cowbells and hot toddies. But other than for a couple of seconds per run, you're watching the same 2D broadcast feed as anyone.

That brings up another thing: NBC and Intel haven't improved the image quality much since the last Olympics. It's not bad for close-up shots, but with wide angles it's too pixelated at times to even make out someone's face. I know it's possible to do better, because NextVR's NBA and concert broadcasts, done with multiple 6K RED 3D camera rigs, result in a much better resolution for viewers.

The next event, curling, provided the sole bright moment in my viewing experience. "You're Canadian," you might say, "so that doesn't count." No, it's not that. Because of the relatively calm pace and controlled atmosphere, it was actually quite fun to watch in VR. Most of the cameras aren't too wide, so resolution problems were minimal. And curling is a game of depth, so the 180-degree 3D view was ideal.

On the other hand, ice skating was abysmal in NBC and Intel's VR because of the poorly placed cameras and the necessarily wide view. The latter made it hard at times to tell if there was even a skater on the rink. (The "kiss and cry"[c] part, when scores are awarded, was okay, again because it's closer.) Ski jumping, snowboard halfpipe, bobsled and luge were also not great, because the athletes move by the cameras too quickly to see much. Again, the frame rates and resolution can't keep up, so sometimes the athletes are literally just a blur.

There were a few things I did like, even when the coverage was otherwise poor. It's fun to just look around at things that the broadcasters normally don't let you see. The ski jump, freestyle, bobsled and alpine skiing locations are particularly picturesque, for instance, especially at night.

I also enjoy the silly little things, like the little kids picking up the teddy bears after a figure skater's performance, the professional photographers, volunteers and spectators, and athletes chatting during lulls. All of that let me soak up the atmosphere and feel what it's like to be at the event. As far as watching the sports goes, though, you're still much, much better off with good old TV, especially for select events NBC is broadcasting in 4K HDR.

As for why NBC hasn't gotten better at this yet, I can't help but wonder if a big part of the problem is Intel's True VR technology. Both NextVR and Intel cover the NBA, for instance, but on a Gear VR headset, Intel's tech is clearly inferior. It's also obvious that VR is still an afterthought for NBC, letting the network tick that box and save its best for the main broadcast.

That's understandable, but I think NBC has to try a lot harder next time, or not bother at all. If they're listening, I do have a few suggestions:

  • Do whatever it takes to make the images much better, including ditching Intel if it can't deliver.

  • Don't waste your time with 360-degree video; it's useless for sports. Focus on 180-degree 3D, and do it better. (I know some people don't like 3D, but I'm not one of them.)

  • Get more creative with camera positioning. VR is useless unless you're right in the middle of the action. Bobsled, for instance, would be insane with cameras mounted on every sled.

  • Improve the app so it's more immersive and less glitchy.

As for the 2020 Summer Olympics, I'm expecting a lot better. They'll be hosted in Tokyo, and Japan is expected to put on a technological tour de force, with 8K broadcasting and more.

Setting the Olympics aside, virtual reality isn't exactly setting the world on fire in general, thanks to problems like nausea, cost and a splintered market with a lot of players. The VR market will be a completely different animal by 2020, so hopefully the next Olympics will be a breakout moment for a technology that really needs it. The PyeongChang games certainly weren't.