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Virtual Reality in Sports Poses Unique Challenges for Producers

Is virtual reality the future of sports coverage? Conceptually, it’s a no-brainer; VR technology can put viewers in the center of the action. And there’s no shortage of players: Jaunt VR, Next VR, and IM360 are among the companies that have been demonstrating immersive treatment of pro baseball, basketball, football, soccer, and the Daytona 500 auto race. But there are several issues that must be addressed before VR becomes common practice.

“The average person thinks they’d love to stand on the sidelines to watch an NFL game,” says Cliff Plumer, president of Jaunt VR’s production arm, Jaunt Studio. “They’ll learn that it’s the worst place to stand. You can have an action all the way across the field, and it’ll seem very far away. So how you cover that for VR is much more challenging than traditional broadcast.”

That’s because, unlike their 2D counterparts, VR cameras don’t zoom, so they need to be as close to the players as possible. In a small space like a boxing ring, that’s relatively easy.

“For the two boxing events we did in London earlier this year, we had [the cameras mounted] on each of the two neutral corner posts, and another on one of the 2D jib arms, to get a really interesting sweeping view,” says Chris Fieldhouse, executive producer for IM360, a joint venture between visual effects studio Digital Domain and 360-degree video pioneers Immersive Media.

The challenges grow when VR moves to a larger expanse, such as a basketball court or football field. For Next VR’s live stream of the season-opening game between the Golden State Warriors and the New Orleans Pelicans last fall, the company placed a camera courtside, dead center, at the scorer’s table, and two additional cameras were embedded in the padding of the stanchions that hold the baskets at either end of the court.

When Next VR has live-streamed NCAA basketball games in VR, it’s been able to add a camera on the sidelines parallel to the three-point line.

“We haven’t done that for the NBA, because they have more restrictions on where cameras can be,” explains Brad Allen, executive chairman of Next VR, which has a five-year deal to produce VR live streams for Fox Sports. “They’re very concerned about safety, as they should be.”

“Since cutting back and forth between camera angles can be jarring for VR viewers, editing of an image stream is typically minimal or nonexistent.”

Some cameras are more obtrusive than others. IM360 began building its 360-degree cameras for the military; they were later adopted for use by Google Street View. The current version of IM360’s camera has six lenses and is similar in size and shape to a softball. NextVR’s camera setup is much larger, utilizing an array of six Red Epic Dragon cameras that cost about $30,000 each. Jaunt VR’s new Jaunt One camera, which is available to rent (but not for purchase) at a price comparable to high-end production rigs, has 24 synchronized image modules and is somewhere in between, size-wise, resembling a squished basketball.

All the cameras come with proprietary software that enables the crew to monitor the video feed on laptops and mobile devices, and, most important, bring the data from the multiple sensors together in a single 360-degree stereoscopic image, a process known as stitching. Since cutting back and forth between camera angles can be jarring for VR viewers, editing of an image stream is typically minimal or nonexistent. Instead, users are given a selection of angles to switch back and forth from on their mobile device or their VR headset.

The audio is typically captured by ambisonic microphones, both standalone and built into the camera rig, with four directional sound sensors.

“We like to say that sound is half the experience of immersion,” Plumer says.

People like to talk of the day when 360-degree cameras will be small enough to place on athletes, so viewers will be able see the games through their eyes. While that might sound attractive in a flying-car sort of way, Allen says the reality is less appealing, especially if the footage is being viewed through an enclosed headset such as an Oculus VR or a Samsung Gear VR.

“If you’re totally immersed in VR, and now somebody’s running down the court and turning your head quickly without you really knowing its going happen, it’s really jarring,” Allen says. “You’ll feel nauseous.”

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