When watching sports in virtual reality, it's best to remind yourself that TV wasn't born in a day. Early television was mostly radio with pictures. It took years — even decades — for producers to figure out the right camera angles, graphics and instant replays to deliver.
Sports is going through a similar transformation. VR holds the promise of putting fans right in the middle of the sporting action — on the 50-yard line, say, or in a ringside seat, or standing behind the catcher as the umpire calls strikes.
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But today's VR sports have an empty and distant feel to them. Watching through a headset sometimes feels like being there in the stadium ... by yourself, absent cheering fans, hot dogs and beer. And it doesn't get you close enough to the action to compensate.
For now, the zoom lenses of television cameras do a much better job of showing a pitcher's intensity or a free-throw shooter's concentration.
Yet Intel, NextVR and other companies are working to bring a variety of sports — boxing, golf, soccer, you name it — to VR. Major League Baseball has delivered a free game in VR every Tuesday (subject to blackouts of hometown teams); next week, it's the Colorado Rockies playing the Giants in San Francisco.
To enjoy it, it's best to think about what VR could be, rather than what it is now.
THE TROUBLE WITH VR
Start with some of the weird artifacts of VR. Many sporting productions don't actually give you a full 360-degree view, one of the main attractions of the medium. Instead, they often black out what's behind you. The reasoning is obvious — you're focused on the game and not other fans — but even television has cameras pointed at the stands.
Worse, VR camera placement is often downright odd. During the March Madness college basketball tournament, for instance, a coach or another camera operator would sometimes stand right in front of the VR camera, blocking the game play. The VR camera was also at floor level, which leaves you feeling as if you were watching while lying down by the court.
A VR camera in a baseball dugout should offer a unique perspective on the game — but in practice, what you often see are players' legs as they walk by. Any competent sports cameraman could have framed the shot better. (Intel Sports executive David Aufhauser says those blemishes add realism, much the way people can walk in front of you at a stadium.)
In Intel's baseball coverage, in fact, some of the best views come from a standard camera that captures the pitcher, batter and catcher in one shot. It's sequestered in a box within the virtual environment — which itself is sometimes just showing the catcher's back from behind home plate.
VR AS A SUPPLEMENT
Maybe it's best not to think of VR as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, television.
Baseball does this well with its At Bat VR app , which requires a subscription starting at $87 for the season (discounted to $8 now that the season is almost over). Instead of VR video, you get a perspective from behind home plate, with graphical depictions of each pitch. A colored streak — red for strikes and green for balls — traces the ball's trajectory, using sensors in place at all major-league stadiums.
You're getting more information than you would with regular television, without missing out on what TV does best — the close-ups. The TV coverage appears on a virtual scoreboard in the outfield.
You need an Android phone and headset compatible with Google's Daydream system. The app isn't available on iPhones or Samsung Gear VR headsets, though Samsung's Galaxy S8 and Note 8 phones work with Daydream headsets. (On the flip side, Intel's baseball coverage works just on Gear VR with Samsung phones — not Daydream.)
WHAT'S TO COME
Some of what VR does really well comes in the form of highlight videos and player profiles. These are usually just a few minutes long.
And because these were produced during practice and other non-game settings, the VR camera can take you to more interesting locations. For a series on up-and-coming baseball players, one camera was just in front of second base, and another was in the bullpen during a pitcher's warmup. It feels as though you're getting access you wouldn't get on television or in person.
So why couldn't a VR camera show relief pitchers warming up during games, too? In an interview, Aufhauser says Major League Baseball and the individual teams will need to get more comfortable with VR before expanding camera access. For now, he says, producers look for other places that won't get in the way, such as the swimming pool near center field at Arizona's Chase Field or the tall "Green Monster" wall at Boston's Fenway Park.
And forget about placing cameras in the middle of the field. Instead, Intel has alternative technology that integrates footage from dozens of cameras surrounding the field to depict how a play would have looked to a player. Television networks are using this now to show as instant replays. Computers aren't powerful enough yet to do this live — but Aufhauser says that's the hope one day.