A Virtual-Reality Olympics? It’s OK, But TV Is Still King

If you want to glimpse the future of sports broadcasting, you can check out the Rio Olympics in virtual reality. But if you really want to immerse yourself in the competition, just turn on the TV.

NBC, BBC and other Olympic networks around the world are offering the opening and closing ceremonies and selected events in VR, giving viewers a 360-degree perspective -- that is, the ability to look up, down and all around -- when they wear special headsets. It's a first in Olympics broadcasting, and NBC itself admits that its more than 100 hours of VR coverage is experimental.

It's good that television networks are getting a head start on figuring out what works with the new technology. Watching the Olympics in VR can occasionally transport you, giving you the sense of actually being there in Rio. But those moments are still too few and far between.

The Basics

Television networks are relying on the shared resources of the Olympic Broadcasting Services. In the U.S., viewers need a cable or satellite TV subscription, a Samsung Gear VR headset and a recent flagship Samsung Galaxy phone.

The VR schedule has a haphazard feel. It offers preliminary rounds for some sports and finals for others, but focuses on just one sport on any given day. Events are shown a day after the fact, too, apart from one fencing event and two days of men's basketball expected to be live.

The Opening Ceremony

Friends who hadn't tried VR before were impressed by the opening ceremony, though the spectacle was less momentous if you'd seen enough of VR for its newness to wear off. A few scenes still stood out:

-- At one point, performers clad in feather-like costumes sashayed and shimmied around me as they introduced the world to Brazil's music and dance. Producers had set up a 360-degree...

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