NBC’s Rio 2016 Olympics VR Needs More Reality
NBC messed up their Rio Olympics coverage of women’s gymnastics, choosing to split the event into two halves that forced viewers to stay up well past the end of primetime to see the women compete. In the meantime viewers became waterlogged with endless swim trials and medal events. This isn’t the swimmers’ fault. A lot of other events took place that day, all captured but not, it seems, worthy of primetime coverage. As for women’s gymnastics, the event ended hours before the broadcast. NBC could have delivered a cohesive experience that dipped back-and-forth between sports during the downtimes, but it chose not to.
But in the world of on-demand video, do we really care that the edited primetime broadcast doesn’t capture the moments we want to see? Every person should be able to watch what they want in a pure, one-to-one viewing experience. And hey, NBC touted that Rio would also be captured in 360-degree video available on Samsung Gear VR. That same expectation should hold for VR.
On the web, those who want to find a particular event video, and are willing to scroll and click more than a few times, can find all of the events they are looking for. Viewers do have to sign-in as a valid cable subscribers. This should be unnecessary for a very public event like the Olympics. Signing in does not remove adds. If people must watch adds, then the content itself should not just be free, but friction free. From the web, the quality of the video is outstanding, which should be expected. Much of content arrives raw, however, meaning, no commentary voice over, just the edited video of the event and the sounds and announcements picked up via the cameras microphone or audio rig.
The VR video, however, leaves much room for improvement. First, the quality of the video doesn’t match HD by a long shot. Owners of Samsung Gear VR probably already know this, so their expectations were set rather low.
The bigger problem comes from the seeming lack of investment in curation, editing and access.
As for curation, the the 360 video feels like a pile of clips strung haphazardly together. Even when the clips suggest a cohesive narrative, like that of the women’s gymnastics finals, the actual experience jumps around with no rhyme or reason.
As a note, the “search” function, which just brings up icons up for the sports covered, includes the men’s and the women’s gymnastics all-arounds. Unfortunately the event label and the videos are swapped, so clicking on the video above the label for the men starts the video for the women, and vice versa.
When it comes to editing, be honest, if people spend time experimenting with watching 360-video, they really want a highlight reel, and that is clearly not what NBC produced. Falls follow great performances, as they do in the real world, but it isn’t clear why a piece of video showing a poor performance was edited into the narrative at all, let alone where it falls in the “story”. The fall is in a different event from the one just viewed. The light editing to combine performances, and in many cases truncate them, really tells no story and does nothing to explain the editorial choices. The video really makes no sense as anything more than a demo of the experience that could have been.
In several cases, as is standard for women’s gymnastics, people perform simultaneously. So in the distance, from the event that is labeled (the one the editors presume you will view), others perform but you don’t know who they are. But in a 360-video the viewer can choose to watch the other performance rather than the one the editor thought they would watch if that is what they choose to do. No accommodation is made for switching views, watching follow-ups or even asking what was going on in the distance (BTW, viewers must look down at their feet to see the name of the person performing before them).
NBC completely missed the access point. There is no selection that provides access to who performs or what event is being viewed (in this case I am referring to the individual events within gymnastics). If the VR channel contained video of just the women’s all-around performance by the “Final Five”, I think several thousands more people would watch it. They needed performances by country, by score, by individual, and by event to create those more personalized experiences. The video did not include any expert commentary. While it is too much to expect instant tutorials, NBC had plenty of audio available to complete the video, and that should be an option (“tap here” for instance, “to hear the commentary.”)
From these observations, a set of rules emerges. Here is the Serious Insights prescription, so are, for what 360-video should strive for when covering a multiple-participant sporting events like the 2016 Rio Olympics:
- Get the best quality video available knowing that the platform reduced quality.
- Curate the content so it can be personalized to the viewer (access by country, by score, by team, by individual, by event sub-category) — include plenty of metadata and a real search function.
- Make sure content labels are accurate.
- Provide AR-like elements so if someone is performing in the distance, looking at them will tell you at least who they are.
- If the broadcaster decides to just cover the event as a full event, do nothing but cut out downtime and include each performance in order (with gymnastics, have a single experience that focuses just on the vault).
- Integrate commentary as an option if it exists.
- Allow the viewer to choose the camera they want to view from (again, women’s gymnastics is a good example because of the complexity of simultaneous events. If however, a viewer chooses to watch the vault, that context should remain primary, even if they choose to see it from a camera placed nearer the floor exercise).
- Edit to create videos that people want to see — use social media and other cues to edit together segments that meet demand.
- Recognize the context and create ways of at least letting viewers identify things they see in the distance (this starts to move 360 video from video to VR, because the viewer receives at least some control).
- Overlay “more like this” functions so that viewers looking around and concentrating on something can launch a closer in, or complementary video, on the thing that caught their eye.
These rules apply only to single, stationary camera experiences. Hopefully for fully edited, multiple camera experiences, storytelling will overcome the passive nature of most 360 video.
Applying these rules will make for better video, video with more immediate impact and more lasting value. With a new technology, all the poorly produced videos reduce the perceptions of what well-edited, high-quality 360 video can deliver. Over time, overwhelming amounts of poor video may drive down demand for 360 video in general.
At this point, I would give NBC high marks for ambitiously integrating 360 cameras into their venues, and pretty low marks for demonstrating what can be done with the video so far. It’s clear though, that NBC’s Rio 2016 Olympic VR needs more reality.
Additional analysis of the Olympic VR experience:
Comcast cleans up its virtual reality act, Philly.com
Virtual Reality Has Its Olympic Moment, Institutional Investor
5 Unique Uses Of Virtual Reality At The 2016 Rio Olympics, Sporttechie.com