MANHATTAN — You can’t be in two places at once, but I’m currently sitting on the Michigan bench of the men’s NCAA basketball national championship game in San Antonio. I’m also in an overly-air conditioned private room of Jay-Z’s 40/40 club in New York City. The downside is that in order to bend space and time, I must keep a bulky virtual reality set strapped to my head. I look like a total dweeb and I feel slightly nauseous.
This event is a publicity thing for Intel’s VR experience. They partnered with Turner Sports to broadcast 21 of the March Madness games in virtual reality this year. A bunch of tech bloggers, many marketing people, and one Steve Lavin — the former head coach of UCLA and St. John’s who now calls games for the VR broadcasts — mill about, drinking beers, eating wings, and strapping these plastic boxes to their heads.
I’m here because the thought of watching one of sports’ big, sacred games in such an untraditional way seems sacrilegious and strange, which means I definitely want to try it. For those of you unfamiliar with VR, it’s basically like an individualized iMax theater. You wear a boxy pair of goggles and when you move your head, your viewpoint changes. Rather than one contained rectangular screen, it’s a 180- or 360-degree shot. You can look around the entire space you’re beamed into on your own time, and even switch viewpoints. There’s a camera in front of each school’s marching band, for example. I can stand right in these kids’ faces and watch their emotions rise and fall with each shot.
Technology never works when you need it to, however, and tonight is no exception. It turns out Jay-Z seemingly doesn’t care about WiFi, and the service in his club is terrible. The marketing people have hooked up little internet doo-dads, but those aren’t quite cutting it, so the video inside this case periodically pauses, overlaid with that rotating circle I like to call the Loading Spiral of Death.
When they do work, though, these things are pretty cool. Watching Villanova pull ahead of Michigan in the first half, I can see details of the game better than I would on the flatscreen mounted behind the couch. From the camera directly behind the basket, I see every mistake defenders make, and can very obviously tell which shots won’t go in before they don’t go in. Jalen Brunson, Villanova’s national player of the year, sinks a three with 15 seconds left in the first half. It swishes by my face.
Everybody in the game looks like a hologram, though. Perhaps it’s just the faulty internet, but the quality isn’t as high as a good TV, so the players appear as video game versions of themselves. People in here wearing these headsets look like randomly-programmed robots, turning their heads toward the pool table, the floor, the chicken wings, to see things inside their plastic boxes that those outside it cannot.
This technology, in its current form, is clearly for people who care about the game more than they care about getting jokes off on a couch with their friends or on Twitter. It’s hard to have a casual conversation with someone, and impossible to use your phone while you’re wearing one of these.
“Once the technology catches up to the concept, it’ll feel like you’re at the game with your friends,” Lavin says. “That’s when it’ll work. It’s a no-brainer. Someday these headsets will look like my eyeglasses, and we’ll have everything right there.”
When Lavin calls a game in VR, he strays from the traditional broadcast made for a standard screen. He gives the game space, doesn’t talk constantly, and makes sure to pay attention to what’s going on around the game rather than play calls. There’s a camera on the crowd, for example, so some people could be watching fans freak out while others are watching a coach’s feet move back and forth in front of the camera on the bench. It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure in real time, but with zero consequences, and Lavin must attempt to connect with all the explorers at once.
These sets don’t have headphones attached. If I could hear that commentary, it might make the virtual reality experience more complete. But it feels oddly sterile. Maybe I’m a Luddite, an old man yelling at an iCloud, but I believe that going to a sports game is a deeply personal experience. Entering a ballpark and feeling like you’ve just walked into church, or smelling the beer as you walk through the concourse of a football stadium, or being bathed in darkness and anticipation before the lights go up and a basketball game starts — all of it sends chills down my spine. Sports sensory overload. I live for it.
If you can’t actually be at the game, the whole point of watching it on TV is that at least you’re with everyone else that’s at a bar or on a couch. A broadcast becomes universal. There’s something deeply connective about texting your friends in Los Angeles and knowing they saw the exact same angle you saw in New York.
With virtual reality, I am neither truly at the game, nor in the bar or living room. I can’t feel the energy, and I can’t interact with anyone inside or outside of this virtual world. It’s novel, but isolating. I feel like I’m invading the space of the marching band as I stare into their trumpets. It’s like I’m trapped in someone else’s dream where I’m invisible and no one can hear me scream. Have I died? Is this what happens when a sportswriter keels over? Am I in sports purgatory now?
I take the headset off. These things are party tricks more than they’re the party itself, and by the end of the game, everyone’s mostly watching on the TVs. They’re chatting, laughing, holding those easy kind of conversations that flow around the rhythms of a game. Villanova is running circles around Michigan. With two minutes left, it’s clear that the Wildcats are going to win.
“It’s like a VCR,” Lavin says. “When they came out, everyone was like, ooh, a VCR! We didn’t know it could be better. Same with a microwave. Now the standards are so high, we’re always waiting for technology to improve.”
Perhaps Lavin is right — maybe the VR experience will change and become the default as it gets better. Maybe with a smaller headset and great WiFi, watching a game like this with your friends could foster a sense of community and engagement.
But as it stands now, this type of viewing experience doesn’t feel very human — and humanity is sports’ saving grace.