VR might have just made me a boxing fan.
It's ironic, because I never cared for the sport. Watching a "Rocky" movie or playing Punch-Out!! as a kid on my NES was the closest I came to enjoying it. But that all changed last week when I watched a live-streamed match using a Gear VR headset.
I didn't expect much out of NextVR's latest live-streaming event. The company has already aired VR streams of debates, basketball and NASCAR. These events amount to panoramic video stitched together and watched with a VR headset on. So far, I'd been mostly unimpressed by the prospects of "live" VR using current tech. Why? Because it's awkward, low-res, blindered and lonely.
But boxing was a different story. Fox Sports and NextVR hosted the boxing stream on Saturday night from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, as part of the set of Premier Boxing Champions matches. I have no idea what Premier Boxing Champions is. I also didn't know who Amir Mansour and Dominic Breazeale were, either, until I watched them face off through five rounds.
The boxing ring is perfectly scaled for virtual reality
I used to write plays and direct shows in small theaters. And that's what this boxing match felt like to me: a small performance. The size of the ring is perfect for the field of view of my headset. Even the length is perfect. The match I watched lasted about 40 minutes, the maximum I prefer to spend strapped into a Gear VR before my eyes get blurry.
You can't make out finer details. But I saw enough of the action to follow every punch without seeing close-ups of bloody faces. (Maybe that's a good thing, because I didn't realize how brutal it was until afterwards.) The field of view needed to see the entire ring was perfect for VR. I didn't have to move my head much from side to side. The action was contained. The advantages of VR, namely sense of scale, presence, and a feeling of perspective, worked to give me a sense of being there. I looked up and could see the microphones attached to long cords from the arena ceiling, and above that, the big TV screens. I watched the broadcasters outside the ring, and the coaches in the boxers' corners milling around, getting ready to help. And somehow it wasn't distracting.
The strange part of boxing and VR is that it's perfect because it's exciting. I got roped in (if you'll forgive the pun), viscerally connected. I could see the moves, the dance of it. The different corners negotiating and preparing between rounds. The crowd milling. Photographers trying to poke their lenses between the ropes. And the distance between myself and the action felt right. It didn't feel as weirdly video game-like as the NBA VR stream seemed to me, either.
I would have watched more. I didn't realize two more bouts were being streamed right after, as part of Fox Sports' evening. See, I'm not a boxing person.
A different kind of theater
NextVR's stream didn't break up, but sometimes I'd feel like I didn't have the best view. I would have preferred close-ups, but I didn't need them. I still wanted to keep watching, though. Maybe it was the fascination of a new sport (for me) in a new medium. The whispers of conversation around me, or the bits of coaching I felt like I could overhear before the announcers came back in.
Ultimately, though, this felt like a better way to watch boxing than on TV. The resolution of phone VR isn't perfect. Sometimes NextVR's announcing and camera angles were awkward. But I mostly saw everything from the corner of the ring...and it was fascinating. In fact, it reminded me of live theater.
As I said before, boxing isn't really my thing. But I do like theater and games. And watching this boxing match made me feel connected and engaged in the way that good games or amazing theater does.
This is what still makes me so curious about VR as a medium. It's simultaneously distancing and deeply, literally immersive. What new art will emerge to make the most of it, and understand this?
I keep thinking of my old MFA theater classes on Bertolt Brecht and his philosophies of theater, how it should have something in common with live sport. What would Brecht, a champion of both boxing and theater, have thought of me watching boxing in VR? He probably would have slapped me in the face. I couldn't go grab a metaphorical smoke. The screen, the event, was literally strapped to my face. I'm at a distance compared to watching on TV, but I can't escape the screen, either.
I'd like to see live theater directed and streamed this way. Small, intimate theater. In the meantime, though, I'll settle for two people circling each other and beating each other unconscious. After several attempts, NextVR has finally shown me how live VR streaming could be a success.