Cooling court at the VR Olympics

Hello backchannelers. This is Sandra and I’m a VR skeptic. With the Olympics adopting virtual reality, however, it is clear even to the slow-down that we have reached a turning point. It is time for us to find religion. So this week I borrowed a Samsung Gear VR – the only headphones approved by NBC – to upload the network’s app and tap into the beach volleyball feed.

I am in Rio here, suspended feet from the ground, just behind flirting photographers. I fumbled with the focus dials and looked at the numbers on the pitch, four of the most athletic women in the world. But I can’t really see them. They are so fuzzy that all I can confidently say is boys, are they tall.

The Talls are rushing through the sand and hitting the ball. They hit back on blistering, high-five serves and hugged each other. I learned that The Talls were Russian and Brazilian. But I couldn’t see their faces. I can barely tell the color of their bikinis. I feel no connection between humans and these great superheroes.

Image quality is about what you get when you press your nose against an old CRT, a combination of low resolution and what is known as the “screen door effect”, for the thin lines that appear between the launch pixels. great. Like I got the best seat in Rio, and then someone put a mosquito net over my face. (Lots to avoid the hassles of fighting Zika.)

To get a better look at the players I tried to walk a few steps to the left, but my Rio himself remained fixed in place. So I turned around to gawk at the people in the stands. Here they are! Audience. Confirmed. After watching some match highlights and wondering about the strange man staring at me (what do I look like to him – am I just a camera? How could I be?) Find a mirror in this weird world?), I go back to the main part of the menu app and pull up the fitness feed.

The potential for great VR instantly became clearer. The gymnast is still fuzzy, but this time I’m lazing around in the middle of an arena, in front of a giant floor mat where a young man performs eye-pleasing acrobatics. I turned around just in time to see another athlete rushing towards a tunnel, his body a fast-moving stain. Further afield, I caught a spot of light of a person rotating easily on a parked horse. I am in the middle of the action, right where I belong. I control what I watch the event to and it feels incredibly powerful. I am starting to think this VR trend could have legs, regardless of the image quality.

To give VR beach volleyball some of the fun of VR gymnastics, in theory, I could have been sitting right by the volleyball net. But really what I yearn for is the ability to explore and not get stuck in one place. A truly transformative VR sports app could include more data and more cameras, set up at different vantage points around an arena. Users will switch between those views and enjoy the illusion of jumping around in virtual spaces. I envision it to function like a rudimentary version of Google Streetview: you’ll move between the available corners and feel satisfied with this partial copy of the natural world. An upgrade like this seems essential to not feeling trapped and without a body, a mind hovering in the VR prison.

Something grazed my leg. I took off my headphones, looked down, and discovered that I had walked about three feet across my living room and was standing away from a wall where the mail drawer was. Several letters have just arrived and landed at my feet. I have gone alarmingly away while mentally locked up in Brazil.

The moment let me pause. As much as I might want to wander around the sands of Rio, the constraints of application can be a good fortune in disguise. Next time, I’ll drop myself on a bench before those super sports fluffy balls start jumping over my line of sight.

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