The Olympic Games in Rio de Janairo are the greatest spectacle in sports, and this year's games offer more ways to watch than ever before. From 4K UHD content to thousands of hours of sport-specific streams, viewers can choose from a cornucopia of options, including VR (virtual reality).
2016 is the year virtual reality finally broke through to the masses—thanks to Samsung's Gear VR—which is the exclusive platform for viewing Olympic VR content through the NBC Sports app
. Within the app, there's a modest selection of event recaps, as well as teasers for upcoming live streams. in the form of Samsung's Gear VR ($100), a headset that is compatible with various Galaxy phones (Galaxy Note7, Galaxy S7, Galaxy S7 edge, Galaxy Note5, Galaxy S6, Galaxy S6 edge and Galaxy S6 edge+).
Here are the steps to watch VR, as described on the NBC Olympics website:
1. Make sure you have your Samsung Gear VR compatible device and Samsung Gear VR headset
2. Download the NBC Sports app via Google Play
3. Authenticate your cable or satellite operator within the NBC Sports app
4. Click on exclusive VR content
5. Insert Samsung phone into Gear VR powered by Oculus
6. Download the NBC Sports app within the Oculus store
7. Follow prompts within the NBC Sports app to start your VR experience
When compared to the thousands of hours of footage available to stream, the Olympics VR selection is quite small. Nevertheless, since I have a Galaxy S7 Edge and a Gear VR headset, I checked out the available Olympic immersive content. What I saw was a combination of awesome, acceptable, and awful. Unsurprisingly, the experience reflects the current state of virtual reality hardware and streaming, which is to say it's in its infancy.
The awesome part of watching the Olympics this way is the uncanny sense of "being there" that VR provides. The 360-degree view combined with head tracking made watching the opening ceremony an incredibly immersive experience. I loved being able to look up at the fireworks, or to see the dancers on the giant stage set as if they were right behind me. If your neck gets tired from all the head-turning, you can pan the view with the Gear VR's integrated touchpad.
I enjoyed the 3D aspect of VR tremendously, especially when the camera was close to the action as it was for boxing. With gymnastics, VR helped me better appreciate the competitors' aerobatic feats. And fencing looked like some sort of sci-fi movie when viewed in VR.
The not-so-awesome part of the experience was the overall low resolution of the video VR. One issue was it became difficult to make out facial features on the athletes. This was not the fault of the Gear VR itself, the content was blurry and fuzzy. As a point of reference, I compared a still image of the Olympic volleyball arena (using the Oculus 360 Photos app) and marveled at the details I could see. The streaming-video VR in the Rio app was far less detailed—so much so that I'd liken the difference to Blu-ray versus DVD, or even Blu-ray versus VHS.
The events with the greatest potential for VR viewing are yet to come. Namely, the men's semifinal and final basketball games will be streamed live via VR. The semifinal games take place on Friday, August 19. Meanwhile, the gold medal game takes place at 2:45 pm on Sunday August 21. If Team USA makes it, that's one you're not going to want to miss. However, I strongly suggest planning to watch it on TV, and only using VR as a supplement. I'm sure it will add a useful and unique perspective to watching Olympic basketball, but the fidelity is not sufficient to make it the primary viewing experience.
Available highlights & replays
August 5: Opening Ceremony
August 6: Beach Volleyball pool play
August 7: Beach Volleyball pool play
August 8: Boxing prelims
August 9: Boxing prelims
August 10: Gymnastics, men's all-around
August 11: Gymnastics, women's all-around
August 12: Fencing, men's team foil
August 13: Track & Field
Upcoming highlights & replays
August 14: Track & Field
August 15: Track & Field
August 16: Track & Field
August 17: Beach Volleyball, women's medal matches
August 18: Beach Volleyball, men's medal matches
August 19: Basketball, men's semifinals
August 20: Diving, men's 10m semi and final
August 21: Basketball, men's medal games
Live VR streams
August 19: Basketball, men's medal semifinals (times TBD
August 21: Basketball, men's medal games (bronze medal game at 10:30 am and silver/gold game at 2:30 pm)
Based on what I see now, by the time the 2020 Olympics roll around, VR will have evolved. In its current state it's fun, and a great proof of concept. With a boost in resolution and a more comfortable headset, I can see VR becoming a preferred method to watch sports.