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Winter Olympics 2018: Here’s what it’s like to watch the Games in virtual reality

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For a couple seconds, I was stranded in the wintry skies of Pyeongchang, South Korea, floating with nothing beneath me and only the frosty landscapes of a 2018 Winter Olympics village in sight.

Had I been skiing right before my moment in air, I would’ve had, by far, the highest jump of any Olympic athlete at these Games. Pyeongchang’s venues were well beneath me, and even some snow-capped mountains seemed to peak below my height. I was hovering.

Then I ran into my kitchen table.

Off came the virtual reality goggles, accompanied by a Google Pixel 2 XL and fastened snugly around my head. And back came reality.

The moment in the sky, it turns out, was nothing more than a projection — one of more than two dozen different 360-degree broadcasts created by Intel and NBC specifically for the 2018 Olympics. It was a next-level mirage. A lens into a digital world within, but so far removed from our own. A toy, if you will. But it felt like something more.

That’s the simplest and most effective way I can describe what it was like to go VR — that’s virtual reality, folks — during the Winter Games.

Verizon was kind enough to lend a Pixel 2 XL, the phone with a camera quality that almost exceeds reality; and a Google Daydream View headset, the VR console that’s maybe two steps away from Luke Skywalker’s training helmet in “Star Wars,” for a test run of NBC’s virtual Olympic coverage this week.

Here’s how it went:

From the get-go, it was obvious that the Olympics VR was built as an experience. This is coming from a guy who doesn’t own VR equipment, let alone an expert who strips his house bare for the purpose of living solely through his VR headset (wait, people don’t do that?). So you’ll want to note that my first foray into NBC’s virtual Pyeongchang scene was immersive, if not disorientating. (Hence the kitchen table collision.)

There, not only in front of me but fully around me, was a digitally rendered city — a winter park complete with buildings, roads, mountains, overhead airplanes. The view, from a faux, wintry South Korean sky, was more entrancing with each turn left and right, each gaze up and down. And it was aided by floating icons, like buttons straight from a video game menu, which could be triggered by the Daydream’s wireless remote.

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The view from above, in the menu of NBC’s virtual Pyeongchang coverage.
NBC

The shock and awe of landing smack dab in the middle of the sky foreshadowed some of the Olympic VR’s capabilities. First, though, came a perusing of those icons, which opened additional menus for a look at a live Pyeongchang medal tracker and full TV replays or highlights from every event, as well as from the 2016 Rio Games.

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Some of the menus available in NBC’s virtual Olympic home screen.
NBC

The pretty presentation, which was just as smooth to operate, paved the way for an exploration of actual Olympics coverage. Whisked to everything from the Opening Ceremony and downhill skiing slopes to figure skating arenas and bobsled facilities at the click — er, point? — of a few buttons, it didn’t take long to find myself back in the surrealism of VR’s 360-degree environment.

And, ultimately, the uniqueness of the experience is what proved most engaging about the virtual dip.

Up close, thrust into different camera views of, say, an ice dancing competition, the picture quality of events wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, especially in comparison to good, old TV looks. In fact, many of the accessible events, like snowboarding and bobsledding, unfolded so quickly, with snowboarders and bobsledders zipping right past your view, that the VR’s incorporation of a screen within a screen — for viewing the standard broadcasts — almost always seemed necessary.

But what the virtual Olympics, powered through the NBC Sports VR app, lacked in the steady, refined picture of regular viewing, it made up for in, well, virtual reality. You just aren’t going to be able to feel like you’re in the crowd and on top of the slopes and among the Pyeongchang camera crews without the angles and the full-directional freedom of something like a VR headset.

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The view from the bottom of the slopes on NBC’s VR Olympics coverage.
NBC

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A split-screen view of bobsledding on NBC’s Olympic coverage.
NBC

Are the VR views perfect? No. If you wanted those, you’d have been better off hitching a flight to Pyeongchang — and maybe passing over my head in that digital village of a menu.

But for the experience? For the pure spectacle of absorbing sports as if you were, in fact, there? For the potential to explore sights to which you would not otherwise be privy? For the fun of running into a kitchen table while feeling as if you’re floating in air?

For that, the whole thing was plenty Olympic.



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