How the NBA became the first major sport to embrace VR

Will intimate access make it more than a gimmick?

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Last week, Samsung announced more details about how its partnership with the NBA is bringing the courtside experience to the Gear VR, starting with this past weekend’s All-Star festivities at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. It's the first sport to embrace VR in this way, and if the hardware actually starts making it into users’ hands — and that's a big 'if' — this kind of partnership could be the start of a new way to experience sports. Since the game was right here in New York City, I headed to the arena on the night of the three-point and dunk contests to learn more about how and why the NBA is embracing this new technology — and doing it so quickly.

First and foremost, the NBA says it’s working with Samsung on this because of — not in spite of — the Gear VR’s limited reach. They see it as a way to test an exciting new technology in a focused manner, according to Jeff Marsilio, the league’s vice president of global media distribution. "If we could tear it all down and build a virtual reality sport from scratch, it would look a lot like basketball," he says. Basketball offers a proximity to the action that’s hard to find in other sports, and proximity is key when it comes to virtual reality and 3D.

For Samsung, an immersive NBA experience would be a big value-add to the nascent Milk VR platform, where quality content is still hard to find. It’s also a way to court customers who are interested in the early stages of consumer-friendly virtual reality — a "stick with us and you’ll go far" mentality, if you will.

While Samsung is working on its own proprietary VR camera with Project Beyond, it’s currently using third parties to bring the NBA to Milk VR. Over the weekend the company released its first publicly available collaboration with the NBA in the form of a couple minute-long practice videos. They were shot by a company called Two Bit Circus, and while the resolution isn’t great the ideas are solid. In one, players are dribbling around and driving past the camera, with the most impressive moment coming when the Boston Celtics’ center Kelly Olynyk soars by on his way to a slam dunk finish. The other features J.J. Redick practicing three-point shots while he narrates the action.

Victor Oladipo using NBA VR
Victor Oladipo, who wore Google Glass for us when he was drafted in 2013, tries out the NBA's VR experience. (Donald Bowers/Getty Images)

A second experience was shown exclusively at the All-Star weekend’s "technology summit," a day-long event on Friday that featured panel discussions on the technological link between the league and its fans. This one was filmed by a company called NextVR and features footage shot at an exhibition game in Brazil between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat that took place in October. It’s much higher quality than the two practice videos on Milk VR, and it's a bit more representative of the league’s vision for this content.

Three VR companies have already shot NBA footage for Samsung

The most impressive VR experience is probably going to come from a company called BigLook360, which filmed All-Star weekend for Samsung and the NBA. On Saturday Lance Loesberg, the company’s executive producer, walked me through his team’s set-ups. Instead of building a bleeding-edge 3D 4K 360-degree camera (which could help speed up the post production process), the company uses a hodgepodge of established HD and 4K technology. Two rigs in use at the Barclays Center were basically just rings of GoPros strung together, while another was made up of two RED Epic cameras (topped with six GoPros). The hacked-together rigs were wrapped in black tape with wires askew — all very reminiscent of the first version of the Oculus Rift we saw three years ago. This approach makes it easy for the company to adapt to filming in any situation, whether it's in the tough lighting conditions at the Barclays Center or on the Oscars red carpet.

NBA VR

The process of filming with these cameras in a mad environment like the All-Star weekend isn’t perfect. Even with help from the NBA, BigLook360’s camera operators have to maneuver around the bodies and equipment of the traditional media. They also have to vigilantly monitor and swap camera batteries and memory cards instead of setting up stations they could hard-wire into. That makes them more nimble — which Loesberg says he prefers — but it also makes it hard to keep filming from being disrupted. Small crews mean it’s difficult to keep people from gawking at the cameras or from standing too close. Even when people are kept at bay, errant balls can smack into the tripods or the units themselves.

The process isn't perfect

While this all sounds a little experimental, the three players involved here — BigLook360, the NBA, and Samsung — all promise a high-quality experience when the footage makes it to Milk VR. I actually believe that, too, considering the variety of access the NBA provided. BigLook360 and Samsung placed rigs on the scorer’s table, the corner of the court, and in a courtside seat during the three-point and dunk competitions and during the actual game on Sunday night. (The original requests were even more ambitious — center court or on the backboard — but concerns for player safety meant the team had to walk it back a bit, according to Matt Apfel, Samsung Media’s vice president of strategy and creative content.)

BigLook360 was also allowed to film at the practice court, where stars like James Harden and Kyle Korver warmed up for the three-point contest alongside two of the company’s VR cameras. This was a room where no more than 20 people watched the league’s best athletes prepare, and in a matter of weeks anyone with a Gear VR will be able to feel like they were there, too. It’s these experiences that Samsung and the NBA are most excited about delivering, and they could be the things that draw in casual fans. One of the most attractive hooks for virtual reality is allowing regular people to experience things they’d never get a chance to otherwise. It's a kind of exclusive and immersive entertainment we've never seen before.

A kind of exclusive and immersive entertainment we've never seen

Samsung, the NBA, and BigLook360 are still unsure of what the finished product will look like, but it will probably be similar to the videos from Two Bit Circus and NextVR: short, with no flashy production, and focused on moments where the action is close to the cameras. The big draw this time around will be the picture quality and the atmosphere. Seeing a packed Barclays Center from the floor or peering into an exclusive shoot-around should help intensify the experience.

NBA practice
You can feel like you're shoulder to shoulder with some of the NBA's best in a few weeks — if you own a Gear VR.

The plan going forward is to keep filming these types of premium experiences at tentpole events; at the end of the season, Samsung and the NBA will look at how everything was received before deciding where to go with it next. The ideas they’re already throwing around are a whole different kind of ambitious, more than just clever camera placement. As I talked with Apfel and Marsilio, they mentioned the possibility of filming courtside broadcasts or featuring virtual reality top plays on Milk VR. They also talked about clever ways to use the full 360 degrees the Gear VR offers, like letting fans glance to the side during a game to see graphical scoreboards or statistics.

What surprised me the most was how eager they were to talk about livestreaming, because bandwidth constraints are an obvious hurdle. (If you think it’s annoying when a video buffers in your browser, just imagine how infuriating it would be when the video completely surrounds you.) But imagine putting on a head-mounted display at home and watching a live, 360-degree feed in 3D from a courtside seat: both Samsung and BigLook360 have technology to make it happen, as do other companies.

Reaching the point where these lofty ideas can be tested obviously depends on how long the partnership holds up. There will also probably need to be radical change in the affordability of the Gear VR, something Oculus’ head of mobile Max Cohen supported when he told us in December that he thinks "the ideal price for Gear VR is zero."

The good news for fans of the idea is that it’s got support that runs all the way to the top of the NBA — the league's commissioner and other officials have seen the test footage. The most popular responses? "Wow," and "expletive deleted," says Marsilio.

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