After years of testing, partnerships and product releases, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Super Bowl was finally going to be broadcast in virtual reality this year.
Imagine strapping on a headset that brings a screen so close to your eyes that your brain is tricked into believing you're actually in whatever world the computer is creating. Now imagine putting a camera that can see in all directions on the field at the 50-yard line and broadcasting everything that's happening around it. Together, those technologies could make me feel like I'm at the Super Bowl matchup between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons this Sunday in Houston, Texas.
Naturally, I thought the NFL's biggest game would be shown in VR, especially since the league let two companies, NextVR and Voke, show highlight packages of games during the latter part of the regular season.
Unfortunately, all we're going to get is highlights from the game, broadcast in a computer-generated man cave (or "virtual stadium suite" according to the press release). It won't even be fully immersive; all the action will be happening on a simulated screen.
So, instead of watching the game live on my TV at home, I can choose to put on a VR headset to watch highlights on a fake TV in almost real time? Sigh...
Miheer Walavalkar, co-founder of San Francisco-based startup LiveLike VR, the company behind the Super Bowl's virtual reality highlights, told me the goal is for them to enhance -- not replace -- watching Fox Sports' televised broadcast.
What a letdown.
Over the past year, several major sporting events, including the US Open and Masters golf tournaments, the MLB Home Run Derby, pro boxing, NASCAR's Daytona 500, the Big East college basketball tournament and even weekly NBA games have been broadcast in VR. All those experiences have been of the immersive, supercool, feel-like-you're-there kind, not the Super Bowl's pseudo variety.
Last March, I watched parts of two Big East tourney games for nearly three hours using a VR headset from Samsung. Catching the action from midcourt, I clearly recall various replays showing eventual national champion Villanova big man Darryl Reynolds slamming it home during the Wildcats' tight 76-68 semifinal win over rival Providence. It almost felt like I was in Madison Square Garden, and not sitting at my desk in downtown San Francisco.
So, this Super Bowl Sunday isn't just a setback for me and other football fans, it's also a blemish on the tech industry's efforts to convince me and others that VR is the future. Companies like Facebook's Oculus division, HTC, Samsung, Google and even the video game maker Sony have been releasing new devices throughout the last year, enticing game developers, movie makers and news organizations to make content for the nascent industry.
Even former President Barack Obama made a VR video.
So why hasn't the Super Bowl made its broadcast debut in VR yet?
Experts say part of the reason is that football, and particularly the big game, tends to be a social sport. About 167 million people watched last year's Super Bowl, and about half of them probably watched it at a party or a bar, according to data compiled by Statista.
Now, imagine going to the bar and slapping a bulky headset on your face. It's not very social.
"Can you imagine 50 people together watching this game in headgear for almost five hours?" said Crowley Sullivan, a former ESPN producer who's now at Los Angeles-based Mandt VR. "I don't know anybody who would want to do that."
Broadcast video from VR also just isn't good enough yet. When colleagues at CNET have watched VR broadcasts in the past, they've complained about blurry images and the lack of any commentators or scoreboards to help them understand what's going on.
"There's still some technical issues that need to be solved," said Todd Richmond, a project director at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies.
And though it appears broadcast VR is getting better, Richmond said there's another problem: "It comes down to why would I want to immerse myself into a sporting event, aside from it being a novelty factor?"
Don't get me wrong. It's cool that Fox Sports and LiveLike VR are placing a half-dozen 4K cameras around the NRG Stadium in Houston, and that they'll be using them to create some 16 in-game highlights (about four plays per quarter) in near-real time.
But despite all that effort, we're clearly in VR's early stages. This means I'll mostly be watching the game on TV, like everybody else.
Here's hoping it will be much different next year.
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