I’m not huge fan of sporting events. And I’m even less of a fan of the Olympics. But this year, the Olympics represents an important step forward in the mainstreaming of virtual reality.
As a Canadian, my national broadcaster is the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). Right now, the CBC is proudly broadcasting select Olympic events in VR. And not just any VR – mobile VR. The flagship platform is Gear VR – but the broadcasts also work with Google Cardboard. And on mobile devices, and desktops.
This in itself is significant – so much of the excitement around VR happens in the stratospheric realm of high-end PC headsets like the Rift and the Vive. But here, the CBC is going for the most users. The reason for this should be clear – you can make content available for the tens of thousands of people who have high end headsets – or for the hundreds of millions of people who have a common device with internet access.
There is a brilliant “getting started with VR broadcasts of sporting events” page on the CBC website. While all of this is moot to me – it’s the kind of introduction that average folks who haven’t heard of VR will likely need, once in their lives, to get on board with watching sporting events in this manner. Here’s a link to that page.
Anyway, what I wanted to blog about today is the UX I’m getting from this VR sporting event.
An early test
And seriously, I’m very curious what 4 years of technological evolution will do to change this primitive experience I’m having today. I’m gonna put a sticky note in my brain, to come back to this post in the year 2020 and compare what’s happening then, to what’s happening today. I expect the changes will be flabbergasting.
What I can tell you for starters, is that the experience is as primitive as humanly possible. There is one (1) camera. It does not move. There are no cuts to another camera. In a way, this provides the experience of “being there” – if you were there alone, and never once got out of your seat.
The Need for VR Buddies
The art of broadcasting sporting events has been evolving for decades. There are any number of things that contribute to the modern user experience of a televised sporting event. Some of these would translate well into VR – some would be meaningless, annoying or frustrating in VR.
But popping a camera down somewhere and leaving it running while the sporting event came out? Well, that’s just too spartan for prime time. Or, to put it another way, I found it just too impersonal, detached, and lonely to consider it an engaging experience. Even though it’s cool to be there in the stadium with all those strangers.
As I tend to think about everything from musical performance to contact forms on the web in terms of “user experience”, I couldn’t help but apply a bit of UX thinking to what I was experiencing in my primitive Gear VR headset.
And my #1 impression was that this is lonely.
If I was to turn on the TV, I would certainly not be left alone by the broadcaster. There would be several charming, well-dressed, attractive people, sitting at a desk somewhere, and talking to me, CONSTANTLY, about what was going on. Sometimes, I could see them, perhaps in front of a screen showing some snippet of action. Sometimes, my screen would be filled with the action, and the voices of the charming, well-dressed, attractive people would be with me, telling me interesting things about the people I’m watching and the things they’re doing.
This wouldn’t really fly in VR.
I wouldn’t want people sitting at a desk in front of the VR camera. That’d seem silly. I don’t think I’d be as inclined to feel like I was “there” if I had people at an incongruous desk staring back at me while I’m trying to watch what’s going on. And I wouldn’t need their “heads-up-display” scoreboards – there are scoreboards there, live, at the event, which I can look up at any time I’m looking for that information. Just like anyone who actually was actually there.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other choices. We aren’t restricted to either being alone, or having people at a desk talking at us.
What would have really helped this for me would be some Virtual Buddies.
What’s a Virtual Buddy?
A Virtual Buddy would be someone who is there with you.
As I look around any stadium in Rio, I can’t help but notice that there are people sitting close to me. Well, sitting close to the CBC’s VR camera. But to them, I’m nothing but a weird looking orb covered in lenses. The people sitting close by most certainly do no seem inclined to acknowledge my existence.
But somewhere between these people, and the traditional flat-screen sprotscasters who are common at sporting events, would be some buddies.
If the VR camera were at head level, and someone were sitting beside me, it would feel like I was there with them.
Commentary on Sporting Events
If there were two of them, they could chit-chat with eachother. Not unlike traditional sportscasters do. But rather than sitting at a desk, that I could either see or not see, depending on what the people in the control booth decided, they could just be sitting there, beside me, the whole time.
They could chit-chat about the sport. About the athletes. About the event. About the venue. About this move or that play. About the backstories. About the controversies. About the weather. About all the same stuff the traditional sportscaster would talk about.
But they wouldn’t be “somewhere else”, at a desk, in a studio, in a broadcast booth, or anything like that – they’d be right there with me, in the seat beside me. The camera wouldn’t cut to them – and back to the action – they’d just be sitting there, and I could turn my gaze to them, any time I wanted. Or I could just listen. Or I could ignore them.
They’d sure as heck be less expensive then traditional sportscasters. They wouldn’t need a separate studio to do their work. They’d just be there. With the camera. Heck, it could even be the people responsible for the operation of the camera. Much like the “videographers” that have turned two-person news crews into one-person reporting units.
Testing the Assumption
When you do UX design, you have to make assumptions, and then you have to test them. If the tests don’t validate your assumptions – you have not improved the user experience.
Testing an idea like VR Buddies would be a no-brainer. You could have some feeds with buddies, and some feeds without. If the data on how long users “stick” shows a statistical difference between viewers with and without buddies – the point is proven. It’s not just a whimsical idea anymore – it’s a sound practice.
If, however, you cannot show that people “stick” longer with some buddies – then the idea can be disposed of, and a couple of bucks can be saved. Though, I’d be surprised if testing showed that users didn’t stick longer, when they have some charming attractive chatty people right there with them at the stadium.
Other UX improvements
Having a couple of witty, chatty buddies on hand would be the biggest improvement I can imagine to this experience, with the least logistical effort. If the CBC had more leeway to put cameras in exotic places – or move around with them – that’d be a major improvement, too.
Right now, I’m streaming some beach volleyball. The VR camera has a position on the event floor, right in front of the first row of seats. That’s a pretty good seat for me – better than for any of the real spectators.
If the camera were mounted, say, on top of one of the net poles – that’d be awesome! The game would take up a huge chunk of my field of view – I’d be close to the players – I’d have action and depth perception and immersion in the very highest degree. That’d be pretty cool. Though, if the camera were up there, it’d be hard to set me up with a buddy.
A camera in the action?
One of the things they do with traditional cameras at sporting events, is to attach a camera to one of the competitors. Especially in races. One thing I’d really enjoy, would be to participate in one of the bicycle races. If a quality VR camera could be embedded in the helmet of a cyclist – without taking away their competitive advantage – it would be like being in the race!
That would be a thrill. To be able to watch the crowded course, streaming towards you at high speed, to look around at the other competitors, without the fear of wiping out if you take your eyes off the road – that would be amazing.
And it doesn’t look like that’s gonna be on the menu for this year’s VR Olympics.
And while I’m still not a huge fan of the Olympics, I do have the funny feeling I’ll be checking in every couple of years for a while, to see how the immersive broadcast technology evolves in its early years. This is the first of those early years. Last year, even what they’re doing today wouldn’t have had anyone with the technology to be the audience.
It’s a very new field. Paying attention to it today, despite not being a huge fan of the Olympics, or sporting events in general, will at least lead to ideas about how it could be made better. And it will lead to those types of compare-and-contrast moments, “Remember the broadcast of the Rio Olympics? Gawd, it was SO primitive….”