I watched from feet away as Simone Biles went through her uneven-parallel-bars routine to monstrous cheers. I watched as German gymnast Sophie Scheder missed the top bar after a release and whoofed in a mat, to audible cries from the audience. I was able to turn around and peer into the stands, then look around at the cameramen rushing around the arena. I rubbed my temples and blinked my eyes extra hard, because I could already feel a low-grade headache coming on.
As part of its Olympics coverage from Rio, NBC Sports and Samsung teamed up to offer the chance to watch events in virtual reality, using the Samsung Gear VR headset. I was legitimately excited to check it out. After about 20 minutes of watching, I was legitimately excited to take off the headset.
The problem wasn’t Samsung’s Gear VR, a platform that I think is one of the best chances to break VR out of its niche gamer audience and get it into the hands of a wider one. There are multiple games and small experiences you can do in the Gear VR that I’ve enjoyed immensely, and which give you the thing that virtual reality does so well: a sense of being somewhere, of scale and presence — that full-body feeling of being on top of something very tall, or being very small and looking up at something very large.
The problem is related to whatever camera tech is being used in Rio. The 360-degree cam being used is monoscopic (i.e., one camera) versus stereoscopic (i.e., two slightly offset cameras), meaning that none of the images had depth: Watching men’s boxing with one eye closed was exactly the same as watching it with both eyes open. While I could look in any direction, nothing seemed particularly near or particularly far away. When the camera changed position, the boxers were suddenly bouncing off the ropes right above me, and they seemed very large, but not very close. The experience can best be described as being in a small sphere with a 2-D TV all around you.
Which, on the face of it, is not a terrible idea! After all, we watch the Olympics on our TVs and it’s (mostly) great. The real problem is that the 360-degree camera being used in Rio is shooting some very low-resolution video. Watching gymnasts, it was hard to make out faces or much else beyond the general outline of bodies in motion. Usually the only people I could clearly make out were the photographers directly beside wherever NBC Sports had set up the camera.
There was also the issue of stitching together the 360-degree image from multiple cameras. There were certain longitudinal lines where everything was slightly doubled. If I swung my head into the right position, it was as if I was suddenly and catastrophically drunk. This wasn’t a huge deal when those stitching lines were in the stands or by the judges’ table. But during one boxing match, it was directly in the middle of the ring. I took to closing my eyes when the boxers approached the stitching line.
It all quickly becomes exhausting for the eyes and brain. Your eyes badly want to focus on what’s in front of them, and your brain is trying to make sense of why these things that are so close are so blurry and occasionally doubled.
And this shouldn’t be a problem! I was using a Galaxy S7 Edge, Samsung’s latest flagship phone, which can easily display high-resolution images without breaking a sweat. Using the Gear VR, I’ve watched multiple videos shot in a high-resolution stereoscopic video, and the effect is incredible.
There were still small bits of amusement to be found. Because watching the gymnasts was so frustrating, I began to track people who clearly did not think they were on-camera. I saw a few people openly yawn, and a few tired officials staring off into nothing, clearly bored at this point of watching another 19-year-old’s floor routine. I saw that, during the vault part of the gymnastic competition, there’s a neat little camera the zips along a track, following the gymnast as he or she sprints forward.
It’s these little moments — the ability to peer around and direct your attention where you want it — that continue to make me want this whole VR thing to pan out. Great VR allows for you to experience things in a way that fools your autonomic system. Peer over a ledge in VR, and you immediately want to take a step back. Have something into your “space” in VR, and you start trying to move aside, the same as you would if someone crowded you on the subway.
Which is why I hope people aren’t watching the Olympics in VR right now, especially if it’s their first time using a headset. Because with the NBC Sports app as it stands right now, it would be easy to assume that virtual reality is not so great at making you feel like you’ve been physically transported to another place — but, instead, is pretty good at giving you a late-afternoon headache.