The Final Four plays out in Arizona this weekend, but there’s a way you can drop yourself into the middle of the action without leaving your couch. It’s cheaper than an airplane ticket and a hotel room too, and you’re guaranteed a fantastic seat. All you need is a VR headset.
Intel has been live-streaming games from the NCAA Basketball tournament on its TrueVR platform since the start of the Sweet 16 round. This represents the first major undertaking in sports and virtual reality for the chipmaker, and Intel is all-in: it was recently named as the official VR provider of college sports for NCAA, Turner Sports, and CBS Sports.
The company will have seven VR camera arrays in the stadium this weekend for the Final Four games. Each rig utilizes 12 cameras to broadcast a spherical view of the action. The images are synced up before the game starts, corrected for color consistency, and stitched in real time using TrueVR’s processing software. The stream is pushed out through the March Madness Live VR app. You can watch the games using a Samsung Gear VR headset and any of the phones it works with.
Be Here Now
When you think about innovators in sports media, Intel probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind. The company has already dabbled a bit in camera tech for sports—its 360-degree replay technology was shown off at the Super Bowl—but the chipmaker is an unlikely leader in live broadcasting. The turning point came late last year, when Intel debuted Project Alloy, its wearable system for experiencing augmented, virtual, and mixed reality content. While Project Alloy isn’t being used in VR sports broadcasts, it’s the frontline of Intel’s research in the field. Through Alloy, Intel is learning how the next wave of VR will be made and experienced.
The Alloy team has been working since 2011 to solve almost every major hardware problem VR manufacturers are dealing with right now. The headset is tetherless, removing VR’s biggest pain point. Also, Project Alloy has inside-out positional tracking—sensors are in the headset, so tracking beacons don’t need to be placed around a room to determine the viewer’s whereabouts. Finally, it doesn’t require a controller to interact with the virtual environment.
While wearing Alloy, you interact with cyberspace using your hands, which show up in front of you in the VR image. The visual aspect is rough and somewhat glitchy, but it works. My hands looked like my hands, and I could even recognize my wristwatch. Achin Bhowmik of the Intel’s perceptual computing group and the leader of the Project Alloy team gets a sparkle in his eye when we talk about the hands. He says this is one of the features he’s most excited about.
“In psychology there is a term called proprioceptive cue,” Bhowmik says. “That means, when I look at my own limb, I just expect it to be there in the way that I know it. If it is not there, or it looks different, subconsciously you get nervous. It’s one of the reasons why people get nervous in a VR environment.”
Intel isn’t going to sell the Project Alloy headset itself, but instead will team up with hardware partners to bring it to market. Developers will also be enlisted to make mixed-reality content for Alloy that shows off the headset’s unique features. The system will run pre-existing VR content, but it’s telling that Bhowmike refers to Alloy as a “VR-Plus” device.
Contrasted with the tech-packed Alloy, the mobile-first TrueVR platform seems like anomaly for a processor giant like Intel. But it still has some of the company’s DNA—just like any hardware manufacturer can build a machine around an Intel chip, TrueVR is an end-to-end system any sports network could use to package highlights and full game livestreams in VR.
“With March Madness, it’s the March Madness live VR experience,” says David Aufhauser, the company’s chief strategy and content officer. “It’s not Intel, it’s not Voke (TrueVR’s old name). We have our own consumer, but really our platform is built to enable any media company or any content company to be able to create experiences for their audiences.”
Whether or not that content sells remains to be seen, but TrueVR is betting it does. People who want to watch the games will be offered two tiers of tickets. A gold ticket costs $3, features VR-specific broadcasters, and gives you control over which camera location you’re watching from. A silver ticket costs $2, and it stations you at one courtside camera and pipes in commentary from the regular television broadcasters. It will be a good test for others in the live VR sports business, such as NextVR, which doesn’t charge extra for VR experiences.
Finding the right price will take time—which is good, because TrueVR still has to work out some bugs. There are visible parallax issues when players walk across the stitching seams between cameras, and the cameras are still being tweaked to find the optimal angles. However, the biggest problem TrueVR faces is the length of the average game. I couldn’t spend two hours in a headset watching a full game, and it was more enjoyable to just watch replays.
For all those flaws, watching TrueVR’s feed feels like magic—mostly because you get to see things you can’t see on TV. Take the bench reaction when West Virginia lost to Gonzaga. An assistant coach threw his rolled up paper and a chair was kicked over. It proved that at the very least, TrueVR tells the full story of March Madness.