MY FIRST FIVE minutes watching NextVR’s livestream of a Golden State Warriors game was average by VR standards. An entertaining way of watching basketball, but nothing special. Everything changed about 10 minutes in. By that point, I usually feel a headache coming on and want to rip the headset off. I didn’t feel that, and then I realized why: the world that NextVR creates lacks the image distortion and inaccurate scale so common in VR. It looks like the real world. What makes the experience so immersive is not what you notice, but what you don’t.
Even if you’ve seen sports in VR before, you’ve never seen anything like sports in NextVR. What makes it revolutionary isn’t how it looks, but how it’s created. Live VR produced by other broadcast platforms like Intel TrueVR and Fox Sports VR combines images captured by multiple cameras with a wide field of view. NextVR’s presentation relies on technology developed for 3-D gaming and television, which creates a far more immersive experience that could become the future of VR.
In a League of Its Own
When NextVR launched in 2009, it was developing compression technology for broadcasting 3-D content. Creating a 3-D picture requires broadcasting two images—a left-eye view and right-eye view. There’s a lot of overlap in the middle, and NextVR’s created a clever way of reducing redundancy in the two images, making 3-D video easier to transmit.
Then the 3-D TV market collapsed. In 2012, with pretty much nowhere else to go, NextVR switched to virtual reality. CEO and Co-Founder David Cole, a self-described “old dog” in VR who worked for a Kodak subsidiary in the ’90s, started meeting with the same broadcasters he met months before while pitching his 3-D tech. This time, pitching the company’s stereoscopic compression for VR. He already knew it was fast enough for live broadcasts. Sporting events—the big reason people still watch live TV—seemed a natural fit.
Five years later, Cole’s company is a major player in the NBA’s forward-thinking ethos. The league, which long ago embraced social media—more than 22 million followers on Instagram alone—offered NextVR’s weekly broadcasts for free to anyone holding an NBA League Pass. It announced a multi-year deal with the company in January, and accommodates its needs in everything from camera placement to seats for its broadcasters.
All of this shows in the quality of NextVR’s broadcasts. The company primarily utilized four cameras during the broadcast I watched, with on one on each basket, one at midcourt, and one roaming the stadium. That game—the Warriors played the Minnesota Timberwolves—was such a back-and-forth affair that my view mostly switched between the two hoops. I should have found the frequent cuts disorienting, but I didn’t have any trouble once I figured out when and how the camera angle would change based on the action on court. By the end, watching the game in VR felt almost as natural as watching it on television.
This gets back to how NextVR creates content. Most in the VR industry use multiple cameras, then stitch their feeds together to create a panoramic image. Effective, but you wind up with parallax and distortion issues. NextVR’s system also uses multiple cameras, but it does far more than just capture images. It produce a 3-D mesh of what those cameras see. “Think of it as taking chicken wire and running it over everything in here,” says Cole, motioning around the arena. “Then taking everything else away and just leaving the chicken wire. That’s what you get.”
The video is then projection-mapped to that 3-D frame, effectively painting in all the surfaces. This takes precise alignment, and if the projection is even slightly off, the scene looks more like a videogame than real life. But this way, the world scale feels right. The players are lifelike, and the edges of the video don’t distort. It’s a big reason why I could watch the game for 10-15 minutes, an eternity in VR.
Practice Makes Perfect
As good as the tech is, NextVR wants to make it even better. Company brass have weekly calls with the NBA to discuss potential improvements, and at the beginning of the season those calls were long and ripe with feedback. There have been multiple learning curves. The announcers had to change how they call a game, and the producers and directors had to learn how to transition between cameras without discombobulating viewers. Early broadcasts even lacked some of the most basic elements of sports television.
“When we first started, we didn’t have replay,” says coordinating producer Josh Earl. “Graphics were difficult because of the 3-D environment. We say we went back to the ’60s as far as television goes for week one.” The company has tried to integrate new features every week, slowly building a broadcast that resembles a typical NBA game. A NextVR production now includes announcers, instant replays, graphics, even a broadcasting truck. It’s a full-fledged television operation.
NextVR won’t be broadcasting the NBA playoffs, but you can still watch highlights packages and replays of some regular-season games as long as you have a Samsung Gear VR or a Google Daydream. The company will spend the offseason streaming concerts with LiveNation, and may broadcast other events, too. NextVR rarely says no, and has done everything from horse races to monster truck bonanzas. All the while, it has been developing cameras—a third-generation rig debuts for the next NBA season—and improving its compression technology to improve next season’s broadcasts. “Having an operational pressure on the company to be there every Tuesday night is tough.” says Cole.
But so far it’s worked. NextVR’s virtual world—especially when contrasted against the occasionally disorienting, headache inducing real world—is a fine place to watch a game.