REVIEW: The World Cup On @BBCSport VR

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As some of my podcast listeners will know, I have recently become fascinated with the potential of Virtual Reality. I’m completely convinced that VR isn’t simply another entertainment gimmick destined for a dusty cupboard next to your Wii Fit, but will eventually revolutionise the way we consume entertainment, train, do business and interact with one another.

As well as the benefits, this will also bring many new ethical considerations and social challenges. You can hear my conversation about this with VR expert Jeremy Bailenson below:

The world cup in now underway in Russia and the BBC will be broadcasting all 33 of their live games in virtual reality. What does that mean? How does it work? Calm down, I’ll tell you.

How Can I Watch The Footie In VR?

In order to watch selected live World Cup games in VR, you will need to download the BBC Sport VR app for your relevant VR hardware. It is available on the following platforms:

I used PSVR (Playstation 4) to watch the beautiful game. It can be downloaded from the Playstation Store. It is free on every platform. It is worth noting that the Playstation 4 system has the ability to record whatever is on your screen and take snap shots at the push of a button. However, this function was restricted in BBC Sport VR, so I am unable to bring you any media. I imagine this is due to football licencing laws.

What Is The Virtual Environment Like In BBC Sport VR?

The virtual environment is a fancy BBC studio/private box ‘located’ pitch side on the second tier of the stadium. Inside you will find a coffee bar, and various sofa areas. There are a number of wall-mounted screens dotted about the place too. It’s big enough to be a flat.

In my sessions, one screen in the lounge area was constantly showing the live broadcast feed of the game, another one was showing slideshow images relating to the tournament (Russia, team planes at the airport etc) and the other screens appeared to display a static BBC logo. I’m not sure whether they are to be utilised for something at a later date, or I was simply unable to figure out how to activate them.

What Can I Do In There?

Before you take your seat on your private balcony overlooking the live action, there are a few interactive things you can do. The PSVR tracks the Playstation controller you are holding in the real world, producing a virtual version if it in the VR environment.

Attached to the top of your pad is a virtual display where you can toggle options (SFX, vibration etc) and access interactive content. For instance, you can bring up footage of teams practicing during training sessions, or team profiles and watch the media in the virtual space as though you are viewing it on a tablet in your hands.

There is also an icon you can click that resembles a babies head. Now I appreciate this sounds like I’m pulling your leg, but this is all true. When you click it, a one foot tall, bearded baby (or miniature Zinedine Zidane) materialises in the room and starts climbing about the place a bit. I’ve no idea why. In fact, it’s downright creepy. Especially when you take your seat to watch the football and you suddenly catch it in the corner of your eye sat next to you. I toggled that shit off again pretty quickly.

What Is Watching The Actual Live Football Like?

Sitting on a virtual sofa, on your virtual balcony overlooking the live action ‘in’ the stadium is surprisingly enjoyable. From this vantage point you get a complete view of all the action on the pitch, creating the illusion that you are watching the game from a private box. Furthermore, by hitting the shoulder buttons on your control pad, you can be transported closer to the action. There are three separate viewpoints in total—the private box point of view, and the view from behind both goals.

As the aim is to create the illusion that you have a ticket to the game, there are no replays of the goals or contentious incidents. You see them as they happen, as though you were watching pitch side, inside the stadium.

However this is easily remedied by the option to toggle a fixed screen just above your viewing point, whatever location you are currently in, which displays the TV broadcast footage. You can leave this on at all times, or just hit a button to toggle it when you want to see a replay. I did the latter as I found myself just looking at the broadcast screen instead. Which defeats the point. This isn’t indicative of the failure of the VR experience, as I have caught myself doing this at live music concerts too.

Unlike being at the actual game however, the broadcast commentary is still playing in your ears. I think this is a good decision, given how otherwise isolating the experience may feel. All alone with nothing but a psychotic bearded baby chasing you about the place.

What’s Good About It?

The design and graphics of locations in VR vary in quality, but I’m pleased to say the BBC VR studio is slick, well designed and has some nice textures. It feels right off the page of an IKEA catalogue, and managed to avoid that cartoon feel.

During my two games, I did not encounter any technical issues or problems with buffering/the game cutting out, rendering/tracking etc. I think this is impressive for such a big event.

Being able to switch point of view to behind each goal area was especially exciting during penalties and free kicks. I got to see Ronaldo’s incredible free-kick from this exclusive viewpoint for instance.

What’s Not So Good About It?

I’m incredibly pleased the BBC has invested in VR in this way and I’m impressed with the overall experience. However, I do have a number of thoughts about things that could be better. I understand that a number of these relate to the current limitations of the technology, rather than failures on the part of the BBC.

First of all, image clarity. I love VR, but you can’t help but feel we are at the start of its lifespan, but in touching distance of a more realistic experience. The Playstation headset, although good enough for gaming, simply does not have the resolution to do justice to live footage, especially fast-paced sport. This means that the game lacks a sharpness that would be present were you actually there in person, or alternatively, just watching it on the TV.

It’s worth noting that I am a stickler for image quality and have a 4K TV and like to watch things on IMAX. I often encounter people who can tell no difference between 720p, 1080p and UHD for instance. So, image quality here may not be an issue for everyone.

However, this restraint is certainly a temporary one as the technology is being refined and improved on all the time. It was reported in May that Sony is investing in screens for VR equipment that improve on the resolution exponentially. It’s only a matter of time before VR gets its own ‘4k’ moment.

Another issue I had was switching between viewpoints during the action. This transition took around two seconds of black screen. This does not sound like a lot of time, but during a high-octane sporting event, it’s an eternity. For this reason, I gave up switching POV to behind the goals unless the game was stopped for a free kick or penalty.

Also, I don’t know about you, but I enjoy a beverage during the game. The front section of the Playstation headset does not lend itself to drinking from glasses, so I recommend a bottle or a straw.

For me personally, the World Cup is about enjoying the big games with friends. This is how I shall be watching (suffering?) the England game on Monday. It’s a social experience for me. The lack of this aspect is immediately apparent in BBC VR. There’s a very ‘trapped in the castle’ vibe to it at times.

This could be remedied by allowing you to invite in the avatars of friends into your private box of course, but this is a minor gripe.

I’m not sure whether I’m missing something, but during both games I was unable to locate a scoreboard or find out what minute of the game we were in. This standard graphic was even absent from the screens showing the broadcast footage. Not being able to see the score or what minute of the game we were in was a little frustrating.

Overall, I really enjoyed my first experience of live Football in VR, and the BBC has done a great job to combine so many elements flawlessly for a huge sporting event—for free.

However, the experience made me wish I could fast-forward 5 years or so in to the future to access a live VR sporting experience to really get excited about. Watch this space.

Have you tried BBC Sport VR? If so, what did you think? If you haven’t, how do you feel about watching live events this way? Let me know in the comments.

Stephen Knight is host of The #GSPodcast. You can listen to The Godless Spellchecker Podcast here, and support it by becoming a patron here or making a one–off payment via PayPal here.

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2 comments

  • I’ve tried a couple or three football games on the PSVR / BBC app and agree with your comments. It’s really quite impressive and a fabulous and exciting incite into the future of sporting / music / travel events. The picture quality isn’t perfect, but doesn’t detract from a great experience.

  • Very good summary, I’m trying it out for the Russia v Spain match and it’s certainly impressive. Well done to the BBC for pushing this technology.

    I echo your thoughts on image quality, but that will inevitably improve very quickly.

    I also think the size and weight of the headset makes long periods of usage uncomfortable but this should also improve with new iterations.

    Long term I can envisage a blend of VR and augmented reality working best for things like this. At the moment you are either ‘in VR world’ 100% or not at all. Being able to turn your head left and right to see other people in the room with you, or look down to see your drink and snacks would be ideal!

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