I had a courtside seat for last night’s Golden State Warriors season opener, with a cameraman squatting to my right and referee frequently getting close enough to scare me.
But what scared me more was Stephen Curry sinking yet another three pointer and the crowd going wild just as my cat jumped on my lap, reminding me that I was still at home and not surrounded by thousands of fans. Instead, I was sharing my virtual seat with many others — tuning into the first live virtual reality broadcast of an NBA game, offered by virtual-reality company NextVR.
That wasn’t the only time the illusion was broken. While VR is pretty awesome stuff and clearly a part of our future computing world, there are still some kinks to work out before people will be watching all their games through a headset.
To set the virtual scene, the VR stream started with a half-court view about halfway up the seating section of the Oracle Arena. The view wasn’t actually 360 degrees; you could see a 180 degree view of the arena with the other 180 degrees just a set of floating, digital logos for the Warriors, their opponents the New Orleans Pelicans and the NBA on a black background.
As the game started, the view jumped closer, still at half-court but this time courtside. I could turn my head to see in different directions, and the sounds of the game filled my ears. Again, the view was just 180 degrees, but you could easily watch the players run up and down the full court and even see the legs of those lucky enough to be physically courtside.
While you are missing out on half-a-sphere of view, there were some more glaring omissions in the night’s broadcast. While there were no commercials to deal with, there also were no announcers and no virtual scoreboard. The two scoreboards behind the baskets were right at the edge of the virtual screen as well, so keeping track of the game was nearly impossible, especially for a guy who doesn’t watch many sports. And with a VR headset on, you can’t easily check your phone for updates either.
— Ian Hamilton (@hmltn) October 28, 2015
The inability to multitask may be the biggest problem with VR sports broadcasts. Right now, the experience of sitting courtside isn’t worth giving up a second screen. Even the people at the arena were playing on their phones during the game, including the woman sitting next to the courtside VR camera.
I was using a Samsung Galaxy S6 in conjunction with a headset to watch the virtual-reality stream. On the technical side, battery life and overheating are major issues. Streaming a full game in VR on a single charge is likely impossible, but attaching a charger meant that the smartphone quickly overheated. Even without the charger plugged in, the phone stopped playback due to heat before the first quarter was up.
With my setup, at least, resolution was also a problem. Names and numbers on jerseys were difficult to make out as players rushed up and down the court, and faces were impossible to see. Plus, stuttering throughout the game led to some momentary motion sickness.
Lastly, the audio experience was a bit of a letdown, as it didn’t change as you moved your head. While turning your head to track the ball made for fun visuals, the sound of the ball and squeaks from players’ shoes didn’t always match up with what was on the virtual screen.
But it wasn’t all bad. A courtside view on a standard TV is pretty boring and limited, but when you’re in control of the angle and can easily glance around at the action, being that close is pretty great. There were a few great views of Curry hitting some nearly perfect shots that probably wouldn’t have looked half as good on a regular display.
That control also means that there are plenty of opportunities for new angles. While most of the game was shown from that half-court position, there was a great behind-the-net shot at halftime, showing the players as they warmed up. While it may not have been great to watch a whole game from that spot, it would have been neat to see it pop up a few more times. In future VR broadcasts, more angles will likely be put into the rotation, as well, which should provide more reason to check out the virtual show.
In the end, a virtual-reality NBA game didn’t really make me want to watch more basketball. But if the resolution improves, hardware kinks get resolved and streaming gets smoother, I wouldn’t mind catching a hockey game in virtual reality. And maybe by the time the Stanley Cup Finals roll around, they’ll figure out how to let us tweet while watching the game in VR.