Virtual Reality and Broadband

For the second year in a row Turner Sports, in partnership with CBS and the NCAA will be streaming March Madness basketball games in virtual reality. Watching the games has a few catches. The content can only be viewed on two VR sets – the Samsung Gear VR and the Google Daydream View. Viewers can buy individual games for $2.99 or buy them all for $19.99. And a viewer must be subscribed to the networks associated with the broadcasts – CBS, TNT, TBS and truTV.

Virtual reality viewers get a lot of options. They can choose which camera to watch from or else opt for the Turner feed that switches between cameras. When the tournament reaches the Sweet 16 viewers will receive play-by-play from a Turner team broadcasting only for VR viewers. The service also comes with a lot of cool features like the ability to see stats overlays on the game or on a particular player during the action. Games are not available for watching later, but there will be a big library of game highlights.

Last year Turner offered the same service, but only for 6 games. This year the line-up has been expanded to 21 games that includes selected regionals in the first and second round plus Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games. The reviews from last year’s viewers were mostly great and Turner is expecting a lot more viewers this year.

Interestingly none of the promotional materials mention the needed bandwidth. The cameras being used for VR broadcasts are capable of capturing virtual reality in 4K. But Turner won’t be broadcasting in 4K because of the required bandwidth. Charles Cheevers, the CTO of Arris said last year that a 720p VR stream in 4K requires at least a 50 Mbps connection. That’s over 30 times more bandwidth than a Netflix stream.

Instead these games will be broadcast in HD video at 60 frames per second. According to Oculus that requires a data stream of 14.4 Mbps for ideal viewing. Viewing at slower speeds results in missing some of the frames. Many VR viewers complain about getting headaches while watching VR, and the primary reason for that the headaches is missing frames. While the eye might not be able to notice the missing frames the brain apparently can.

One has to ask if this is the future of sports. The NFL says it’s not ready yet to go to virtual reality until there is more standardization between different VR sets – they fear for now that VR games will have a limited audience due to the number of viewers with the right headsets. But the technology has been tried for football and Fox broadcast the Michigan – Notre Dame game last fall in virtual reality.

All the sports networks have to be looking at the Turner pricing of $2.99 per game and calculating the potential new revenue stream from broadcasting more games in VR in addition to traditional cable broadcasts. Some of the reviews I read of last year’s NCAA broadcasts said that after watching a game in VR that normal TV broadcasts seemed boring. Many of us familiar with this feeling. I can’t watch linear TV any more. It’s not just sitting through the commercials, but it’s being captive to the stream rather than watching the way I want. We can quickly learn to love a better experience.

Sports fans are some of the most intense viewers of any content. It’s not hard to imagine a lot of sports fans wanting to watch basketball, football, hockey or soccer in VR. Since the format favors action sports it’s also not hard to imagine the format also drawing viewers to rugby, lacrosse and other action sports.

It’s possible that 4K virtual reality might finally be the app that justifies fast fiber connections. There is nothing else on the Internet today that requires that much speed plus low latency. Having several simultaneous viewers in a home watching 4K VR would require speeds of at least a few hundred Mbps. You also don’t need to look out too far to imagine virtual reality in 8K, requiring a data stream of at least 150 Mbps – which might be the first home application that can justify a gigabit connection.

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