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Live VR not ready for prime time

Virtual reality is supposed to transport you to exciting new worlds. With live video, though, it's just a blurry mess. For now.

Virtual reality headsets are supposed to transport you to new worlds. But they've still got some bugs to work out.
Juan Garzón/CNET

This story is part of CES 2016. Our editors bring you complete CES 2016 coverage and scour the showroom floor for the hottest new tech gadgets around.

Ah, virtual reality. Put your smartphone inside a pair of goggles, strap them to your head, and -- presto! -- you're transported to a computer-generated world, whether it's a starship or a Sherpa village in the Himalayas. At least, that's the promise of VR games and films.

But what about live VR streaming, which is being made available in your living room or anywhere else you happen to have your goggles? Some companies are already testing this technology, and it won't be long before you'll have to pay a premium to receive these streams.

On Thursday night at the CES conference in Las Vegas, I had a chance to find out what it's like. After strapping a Samsung Gear VR headset to my face, I was transported from a hotel party room to a courtside seat at the United Center in Chicago to watch a basketball game between the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls.

At least, that's what I think I was watching. The video was so blurry I couldn't make out players' jersey numbers, find a scoreboard or read the shot clock. I was also lost without TV's usual slickly produced video, commentators and graphics to help me understand what was happening. I watched the game from the best seat in the stadium, but after 20 minutes I realized I didn't enjoy it at all.

The episode highlighted VR's shortcomings. When the technology works, it makes you feel as if you're standing in front of a Tyrannosaurus rex. Or it gives you vertigo as you (virtually) peer over the ledge of a skyscraper. When it doesn't, though, you're just annoyed and confused.

David Cole, co-founder of NextVR, which streamed the game, admitted a few bugs still have to be worked out. He also said he's not out to create a highly produced TV stream in VR, with rich graphics and shot-by-shot commentary. He wants to make you feel like you're there.

"It will be a huge value for fans," he said. People who love sports and wish they had the killer seat at a game will love it, he added. "There is nothing like taking a rabid fan to a game who can't get there otherwise."

To be sure, I'm one of those people who would probably be bored sitting courtside at a real game anyway, since I'm not an avid basketball fan. So instead of trying to follow the on-court action, I often found myself peering from left to right to watch the TV cameramen or look at the fans sitting next to me. One detail you wouldn't catch on TV: someone sitting to the right of me had a cast on his foot.

Despite criticism about poor visuals, NextVR, of Laguna Beach, California, is pushing ahead with plans to build a near-daily channel of live events, all streamed to VR headsets. In the next few months, the company plans to insert ads into its streams and test charging for admittance. Cole declined to say how much it'll cost.

And what of my poor experience?

Cole claims video quality isn't the problem; it's the phones themselves. Phones coming out this year will be able to display sharper images, letting people actually see who made that killer slam dunk. "It won't solve every problem," Cole said, but it'll help.

We'll have plenty of chances to find out. NextVR is preparing to live-stream an upcoming presidential debate -- this time placing cameras closer to the action. They may even be built into the moderator's podium, giving VR enthusiasts an up-close-and-personal view of the candidates.

NextVR will also test more camera angles, so viewers can switch across the different perspectives. "There's value when we can get you somewhere you can't," he said.

We'll see if everyone else agrees.