How Intel will plunk you into South Korean snow by streaming the Olympics in VR

Keith Nelson Jr.
Digital Trends

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When the Olympics happen, the world unifies by tuning in – but only a few are lucky enough to be in the crowd watching the world’s greatest athletes compete. An even smaller amount — mostly the best athletes in the world — get to be inches away from the action. This year, when the Winter Olympic Games hit Pyeongchang, South Korea, on February 9, you can be one of the lucky ones, as Intel and NBC will be bringing the Olympic events to the NBC Sports VR app its revamped entirely.

Intel and NBC will bring 30 Olympic events to virtual reality. 18 of those will be streamed live in VR, a first for the Winter Olympics. The remaining 12 events will be available as video on-demand (VOD) the day after the event is over.

The live events will be presented in rich,180-degree stereoscopic views thanks to Intel’s True VR system. Intel will employ between three to six of its True VR camera pods, consisting of 12 4K cameras each, and give fans the ability to switch between the views of each pod by tapping a button. Blake Rowe of Intel’s product implementation team told Digital Trends at the demo event, held at the Ace Hotel in New York City, that the company decided to live stream the Olympics with 180-degree views, instead of 360-degrees, to present the best-looking visuals its system can provide.

“We’d rather focus on creating a high-quality, crisp resolution in the field of play, and on your sides, than what’s behind you,” Rowe said. “So, rather than degrading the quality in front of you to allow for a behind view, we choose to focus on what’s in front of the camera, the action.”

Intel

Intel

The new app has been in development with Intel since last summer, in conjunction with the Olympic Broadcasting Service (OBS), the organization that distributes the broadcast of all the Olympic games to networks like NBC. “OBS gave us a list of events they wanted us to cover,” Rowe told Digital Trends. “We kind of went through what we could do with our camera technology. What events lend themselves best to the live coverage, and what events lend themselves to the handheld coverage.”

Curling, figure skating, skiing, speed skating, skeleton racing, biathlon, and  snowboarding are a few of the events you can expect to see in VR when this year’s Winter Olympics roll by. This what you can expect to see when you fire the up the app.

What To Expect

Being at the Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most people. Being in the Olympics is a dream that Intel is looking to make a virtual reality for millions. “We’ll be putting cameras on either the course runners or the athletes going down the downhill course, or doing curling, or ski jumping, to get the POV in 360 [degrees] of what it would be like to be that athlete on that course.” For the events only being released on VOD, handheld cameras that shoot 360-degree video will be placed in areas they wouldn’t normally go for a televised broadcast.

“So, putting a camera down in the turn on the course in biathlon to allow for them to have that viewpoint of seeing the athletes come by. Then we’ll take them and put them in the stands to give them the experience of being in the stands.” You’ll be able to go from couch potato to world class athlete, all with the push of a few buttons in VR.

None of the Winter Olympic events have taken place yet, but Rowe gave us details on how Intel plans to stream the men’s and women’s ice hockey matches. Five camera pods will be setup at each event: one in the stands, two behind each goal, and two between each bench. Rowe promises the cameras between the benches will be closer to the action than the commentators are, and tantalizingly close to the bone crushing action hockey is known for. “They’re right there on the boards, no glass in between, on the end of each team’s bench.”

Bronze Medal Visuals

For the demo, the visiting center was the only cluster loaded with content to view, and almost all the video footage available was from the Summer Olympics in 2016, which Intel was not involved with. However, there were two new videos available; a visceral exploration of the Seoul and Pyeongchang culture (Winter’s Eve), and fly-on-the-wall views of athlete preparation for the Olympics (Olympics Are Made).

The Olympics Are Made short places you under the bench as hockey players lace up their skates, behind a snowboarder as they catch big air, and on the side of a ski slope as a skier zips past you, inches away. At various points while watching the short, I instinctively tilted my body to help the snowboarder land his trick, and jumped back when a hockey player crashed into the glass in front of me.

As for video quality, Intel’s demo gets a bronze medal. I previewed the app on the Google Daydream, and none of the videos were close to crystal clear. Some were so heavily pixelated I became lost in a flurry of distorted snowflakes, temporarily uncertain as to what I was watching. Rowe says Intel recommends you view the VR content with at least a 20 megabit per second internet connection. Holding the demo in the lower level of the constantly bustling Ace Hotel may not have been the best choice.

The new NBC Sports VR app is available now for the Google Daydream, Samsung Gear VR, and Windows Mixed Reality headsets. You can also download the app on iOS and Android devices, allowing users to enjoy interactive 360-degree video.

The grandiose opening ceremony will be the first event streamed live at 6 A.M. ET on February 9. You can check out a full schedule of the events coming VR here. Until then, do some push-ups, jog a bit, and rest your eyes — because soon, you’ll be in the Olympics.

*Update: Added information about the NBC Sports App being available for download.

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