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Virtual Reality Might Change the Way We Watch Sports... Someday

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I had a chance to see what the future looks like.

Google Unveils New Products, Including New Pixel Phone Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: I had a chance to cover Tuesday’s Clippers-Nuggets game as a guest of NextVR, the NBA’s virtual reality partner. I would have been covering the game normally if I had not received this invitation. I met with executives from NextVR, toured the production truck, and watched the first quarter in Virtual Reality. I was not offered this experience, or any other compensation, in exchange for a positive review. I was not even asked to write about VR—just to come and see their work.

It’s a fact of life in 2016 that technology is changing the way we live our lives. One obvious way has been the decline of cable television—people are now less likely to watch weekly shows. We binge whole seasons at a time and we stream on our laptops and other devices. As a result, tons of people have been cutting the cable cord—and the bill—in recent years.

The one thing that’s keeping someone like myself on cable is live sports, and even as we experiment with new ways to stream (League Pass and some more dubious options), there’s always something lacking that cable doesn’t provide—whether it’s delays, poor quality, blackouts, or some other reason. For some people, those sacrifices might be worth the saved cost, but for a lot of us, we’re left paying for hundreds of channels just because we want our Clippers games.

This week, I got a chance to check out a revolutionary new way to watch basketball—in virtual reality. The scene is simple but mindblowing: a pair of cameras (left eye and right eye) and set on the scorer’s table at center court, and by putting on the virtual reality headset, you immerse yourself into that seat. As the action moves to different areas of the court, the feed cuts to different pairs of cameras (notably, a set attached to each basket stanchion). These wide-lens cameras capture the entire court, and you can turn your head to check out whatever you want within the camera’s vision. At center court, you can watch Doc Rivers talk to Chris Paul on the sideline to your left while DeAndre Jordan is shooting free throws on your right. Under the basket, you can watch J.J. Redick come off of a screen on the right wing while Jamal Crawford is dribbling on your left.

The experience can be intense: DeAndre Jordan dunks are much more vivid as you sit immersed on the basket stanchion. As the ball rolled towards the camera, I twice had to resist a natural urge to lean down and scoop it up. The virtual-reality-only announcers give specific directions: look to your left to see this, on your right you can see that.

It’s just the kind of technology that could change the way we watch Clippers games in the coming years. The NBA is on the cutting edge of VR (they offer one Tuesday night game in VR every week, the first regularly scheduled VR programming of its kind), and Steve Ballmer’s Clippers have been looking for a way to cut the cord and provide a new experience to replace traditional cable broadcasts. It’s conceivable, in my mind, that the Clippers could be the first team to get on the bandwagon.

But it likely isn’t imminent. The product is still flawed and even when it is perfected, there are obvious accessibility issues. The most glaring issue is the resolution: similar to a poor online stream, you can tell what’s going on, but sometimes it can be difficult to determine which player is on the other side of the court, and the constant blurriness tests your patience—especially if you knew there was a TV on the wall should you take your headset off. When the broadcast cuts to a different camera angle, you’re often left looking at nothing, hunting for the play and missing some action.

Still, NextVR is optimistic. Tech moves impossibly fast, and executive chairman Brad Allen told me that the resolution issues have more to do with the device than the stream: as the phones improve, he says they’ll be better able to handle his company’s video streaming.

The larger issue stems from accessibility—while the VR headset is “only” $99, you also need a Samsung phone to strap into it. If you already have Samsung, great, but for the vast majority of us who still use iPhones, I’m not sure that this product is exciting enough for me to change phones. Beyond that, VR broadcasts will only reach a certain group of sports viewers. I could see myself watching 82 games a year if the product improves, but I have a hard time imagining my mother watching Clippers games if this was the only option.

There’s an obvious potentiality for growth in the world of VR—more devices, more accessibility (maybe an iPhone-compatible VR headset?), but that potential will only be realized if early ventures like these NBA games are successful. Right now, there just isn’t a lot of content for VR users, and therefore, not a lot of incentive for normal people to buy VR headsets. As the content expands, maybe more users will come, but it’s also easy to see a path where VR turns into the next iteration of the 3-D TV—a cool invention that ultimately was unable to unseat the television as our primary means of consuming media. It’s also perhaps telling that NextVR was originally a 3-D TV company that then transitioned to virtual reality.

Still, I’m excited to see where this goes. While there are clearly shortcomings, there’s something to be said for putting on the headset and entering another world. A few of the demos that I watched, including a concert and a day at the beach, were mesmerizing. For now, I think I’ll stick to the TV screen, but it would not surprise me at all if we’re watching games in VR in the coming years, especially if they can find a way to incorporate social media into the experience, making multitasking possible.