Watching NBA basketball live in VR is an exciting new experience with plenty of obvious flaws
Last night I found myself standing courtside at an NBA game, the season opener in the new Sacramento Kings stadium. I could count the laces on Pau Gasol’s sneakers and catch a glimpse of training staff taping up an injured player’s hand beside the bench. Suddenly, everything froze, and I peered around an exquisitely detailed tableau. It had some of the robust depth of real life, especially when I peered at players standing close to me. The farther away the athletes were positioned, however, the more they look like two dimensional cutouts in a life size diorama.
I was watching the first NBA game broadcast live in VR. It was produced by a startup called NextVR, and shown inside their app (itself inside the Oculus app). For now the NBA VR experience is available only on Samsung’s Galaxy Gear VR headset, which I used with a Galaxy S6 Edge smartphone mounted inside. It’s a fascinating experience, and a flawed one. I got an intimate perspective on the game, one much closer to actually sitting in the stadium than watching it on TV. I noticed fun little details for the first time, for example that Gasol has a bit of potbelly. But the world viewing was also warped and pixelated, hardly a convincing illusion that I had been truly transported to a courtside seat.
The best way I can describe the experience is to say that it felt like very well built telepresence robot, as if I was inside a stationary camera that swiveled with my head motion. I had slightly less than 180 degrees field of view facing forward, and I could look down to see a floating graphic displaying the quarter, game clock, and score. The 180 degrees behind me were a software simulation with more in depth stats on the game. NextVR made this choice in part to limit the amount of live video it has to stream, and in part to help preserve your focus on the game. It works, although I think it would have been easier to get into the energy of the game if I could turn around and see the crowd.
The main viewpoint is a camera set right on the sideline at center court. When the players were making a run across the court at the start of each possession, the central camera position provided a great view, and I experienced their speed and size in a way that I don’t when watching TV. But when the action got close to one basket, the limitations of this camera emerged. From my center court perspective I could see a ways down the sideline, but anyone taking a three pointer from behind the arc on my side of the court was obscured as they moved towards the corner.
To counteract this, the view of the game you’re watching is produced. Just like a televised broadcast, a team from NextVR decides when to switch between eight different camera perspectives. This lets you jump to a viewpoint behind the hoop when the action is happening close to the basket and might be difficult to watch from center court. It’s a smart choice for ensuring I didn’t miss anything, but it made it much harder to really feel "present", since my perspective kept bouncing around: from courtside up into the cheap seats, then down into the tunnel leading to the locker room, then back behind the basket.
NextVR also has their own commenting crew, who kept up decent patter about the game. One nice touch was that they seemed to be watching the same VR style broadcast I was, and would make suggestions sometimes about where and when to look. There was natural sound piped in along with the commentary: the roar of the crowd, the squeak of sneakers, the thump of a ball bouncing off the hardwood floor. But the audio didn’t work well enough to really enhance the sensation that I was actually at the game.
I watched three quarters of the game before calling it quits. It was an interesting experience, one I would try again. But it was clearly a work in progress, and frustrating at times, with the image freezing and the audio garbling at various points, forcing me to back out of the app and restart the stream.
Beyond the technical glitches, there are fundamental issues with watching pro sports in VR. There are lot of pauses in the action, points where a television broadcast cuts to commercial and you check your phone, grab a snack, or use the bathroom. I could do those things last night too, but to do so meant taking off the headset and completely losing track of the game.
Yes, I could watch the game from up close, as if I were sitting in seats I could never afford, but I couldn’t chat with my wife while doing it, and I couldn’t have watched the game live with friends. The NBA in VR is an all or nothing experience, and while I have high hopes for how quickly the live broadcast might improve, especially as it moves beyond the Galaxy Gear to more powerful hardware, right now the quality of the immersion doesn’t really justify the isolation.