13 August 2016

Working on a new (virtual) reality

Courtesy NextVR
I really didn't know what to expect, but last Wednesday night was seriously different.

Less than 72 hours after first hearing about the broadcast, less than 48 after being confirmed to work on it, I showed up at MetLife Stadium to provide play-by-play for NextVR's virtual reality broadcast of the International Champions Cup game between two giants of world soccer, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.

I didn't have a lot of expectations, but the few I did have were nowhere close to reality. Read on to hear about the experience.

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Virtual perspective
I don't own an Oculus (or any other kind of) headset, so this virtual reality technology was completely new to me. Our production team helpfully had headsets on hand to allow myself and my broadcast partner -- former US national team, Bundesliga, and MLS defender Heath Pearce -- to get a feel for our viewers' experience.

Trying this out in the production truck before the game, we watched footage from NextVR's coverage of the Real Madrid-Chelsea game earlier that week, one of two prior International Champions Cup matches they had produced (both without live commentary). It really was amazing to be able to put on the headset and immediately be given a sideline vantage point, then be able to turn your head as the action continued and choose what you were looking at.

Within the scope and the view provided by the camera shot, viewers can look from side to side and even up or down, seeing almost exactly what they would if they were inside the stadium. Being able to look up at the Michigan Stadium scoreboard and see a replay, knowing live action was going down on the field, really hammered in the point: it was designed to provide many parts of the in-stadium experience. It also is quite a workout for your eyes!
How does it provide that in-stadium experience? Well, I walked out to the field to look at the infrastructure, and the cameras are definitely distinct in that they capture the action from two adjacent lenses. Those pictures are used in the virtual reality headset for your two eyes, creating a single, extremely wide-angle vision. For this game, the set-up used three sideline cameras and two cameras in each end zone, for a total of seven.

On this night, our crew had to quickly switch the sideline cameras from one sideline (pictured) to the other due to an overlap with TV rightsholder ESPN's camera positions, so we wound up calling the game from a reverse angle from television viewers.

Sideline broadcasters
Can't get much closer without being on field.
The biggest difference for me as an announcer, however, was our broadcast location. No matter what the details were of the virtual reality setup, I assumed we would be in a broadcast booth somewhere high above the field, able to spread out our notes and get a big-picture look at the teams and their shapes.

Instead, to go along with the "best-seat-in-the-house" feel, we were fieldside, maybe 15 yards away from the Real Madrid technical area. Instead of desk space, we had our microphone boxes and a monitor and a whole lot of cables, and we just stood right up against the advertising boards to watch and call the action.

For our on-camera open, we walked past the team benches, onto the field at midfield, and proceeded down the sideline until we were in front of one of our cameras, pulling microphone cords with us. Most on-camera shots are from the waist up, but we were quickly told to put our microphone boxes behind our feet, because they were clearly visible to any virtual reality viewers who looked down. Needless to say, it was a different experience.

Heath and I came on the air at 7:30 pm, five minutes before the game was scheduled to kick off. That meant we were standing on the sideline during the national anthem, and we were in the middle of our open when the teams walked onto the field to face the crowd. After our open, we just let the viewers experience natural sounds while we made our way back to midfield to get around the advertising boards, ducking beneath cameras aimed at the real stars of the show.

The call itself
Once the game started, I thought maybe it would be business as usual, but it definitely wasn't. Since all the cameras were located at field level, we had to be constantly aware (even more than in a normal game) of what camera shot was being used at any given time. That way we could fill in what the viewers couldn't see (for instance, if the ball was on the far side of the field, my call would be more of a radio play-by-play style, narrating each touch and action) and direct them to what they could. From the midfield camera, for example, you could often see Real Madrid legend and head coach Zin├ędine Zidane yelling instructions from the edge of his technical area, so we would advise viewers to "look to your left" to see that interaction.

That kind of instruction -- telling the viewer where to find something -- got great feedback from our production crew and seemed to be a big hit. The scorebug and any replays both required the viewer to look up, so we tried to get in a rhythm of suggesting that to viewers who might not have picked it up. But I will admit we both said "on your screen" several times, which is not really an accurate way of describing what viewers are seeing in their headsets.

It was a new experience for us and still a learning experience for our crew, so there were definitely moments where the ball moved so quickly that our cameras couldn't completely follow it. The speed of soccer is compounded by the fact that on this broadcast, every camera switch results in a quick fade to and from black so as not to disorient the viewer. On the other hand, our end-zone cameras had some really good angles for free kicks and scoring chances, meaning our viewers might have thought a David Alaba set piece that banged off the top corner of the goal post was headed in their direction!

For us, being on the field definitely brought some different elements. Crowd actions like doing the wave, chanting, "Mah-dreed" for Real Madrid, and cheering every touch by Colombian star James were all readily apparent and definitely more vivid from the sidelines. Our angle (and the virtual reality angles) afforded us looks up into the 80,000 seats and to the airplanes above coming in for a Newark landing. In the second half, with the lights taking full effect, we had Real Madrid staffers surrounding us, and we were directly in line with the calls to substitutes warming up beyond us. Definite on-field immersion.

Was it a technically perfect call? Not at all. But Heath and I were able to keep up with who had the ball, even when that player was on the far side of the field and only visible to us through a maze of bodies, and we had a lot of fun with the show. The first half had some terrific scoring chances and exciting play, particularly through Bayern Munich's left-sided players right in front of our three sideline cameras. The second half was less exciting but did give us the only goal (WATCH IN 2D), a dipping outside strike from Real Madrid's Danilo, but I will admit that because of our angle, it took me a few extra seconds to know which player had taken the shot.

Night to remember
Overall, it was a night to remember and something completely new for me and surely for some of our viewers. Hopefully those watching, newbies and vets alike, had a good time.

With an expected increase in availability and distribution coming later this year, what does the future hold for virtual reality sports broadcasts? Which sports will be best-suited to the VR experience? I definitely can't answer those questions yet. But I'll be excited to find out the answers, and I'm guessing whatever my expectations, the outcome will be totally different.

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