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Intel to Power NBA's VR Coverage

Aditya Kishore
11/8/2017

US professional basketball league the National Basketball Association (NBA) has decided to double down on virtual reality (VR). The league has announced that it is working with Turner Sports and Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) to provide coverage of NBA games in virtual reality starting with activities around the All-Star game weekend in Los Angeles in February 2018.

Turner has been careful to maintain its relationships with pay-TV providers, making the games available for free to cable and satellite subscribers via an authenticated NBA on TNT VR app from Intel.

The American Airlines arena in Dallas and the Quicken Loans arena in Cleveland will be the first to have Intel's technology installed, but Intel will also be providing its True VR platform and freeD volumetric video technology for NBA broadcasts with partners around the world.

Volumetric video is a form of video capture that allows viewers to "walk" around and see the image from different angles. It doesn't stretch or end when viewers change their perspective, it actually captures the image from all angles, allowing the viewer to engage with the video content at a far more immersive level then "spherical" or more traditional 360-degree video.

Volumetric video offers viewers six degrees of freedom (6DoF) in interacting with the video, which refers to the degree of freedom a body enjoys when interacting with a 3D space. A more detailed explanation of the concept is available here.

Intel's freeD technology uses more than 30 5K resolution cameras to capture video in a stadium, and then processes 1TB of data for every play to create a volumetric image of the action, allowing viewers to see it from every angle. Viewers will need the "NBA on TNT" VR app (available on Oculus and GooglePlay app stores), and a Samsung GearVR or Google Daydream headset.

The NBA's emphasis on VR is different from other industry players, especially Apple, who are increasingly focusing on mobile AR. The high cost and weight of headsets have limited adoption, and concerns around motion sickness and visual exhaustion continue to constrain the VR revolution. Bandwidth is another massive challenge, as VR streams can take anywhere from 68 Mbit/s to 8 Gbit/s depending on the resolution and frame rates used. (See Microsoft & Apple See Coming Augmented Reality Revolution.)

In fact, the slower than expected development of VR has chased away Nokia, which recently announced it was ending development of its OZO VR camera and associated hardware. (See Eurobites: Reality Bites for Nokia's VR Dreams.)

But the NBA remains bullish -- though it won't disclose how many viewers it has gained since its launch of VR coverage with NextVR last year. It did say the average viewing time increased from seven minutes per game initially to 42 minutes per game now, but that compares to traditional TV viewers watching an average of three hours per game.

The NBA has acknowledged that fans haven't taken to it as quickly as they had hoped, but it still believes VR is coming and wants to be there when the viewers do start to tune in. And it still sees VR as mostly complementary to TV broadcasts, which it expects will remain the more typical viewing format for most fans.

Intel's VR technology does also help with traditional broadcasting. It allows viewers to freeze the video, and then view the play from the player's point of view. This can also be used by commentators in broadcast feeds to pause and analyze the play from multiple angles.

And it has been picking up customers for its VR products despite questions about the format, including Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Football League (NFL) and NCAA college basketball. It will also be covering 16 events at the 2018 winter Olympics in South Korea in VR.

Finding revenue models is also still a challenge, but broadcasters are looking for ways to monetize VR. Discovery and ABC are both actively experimenting with opportunities for ad revenue. Turner is also pursuing ad-related opportunities but doesn't plan to look to traditional 30-second commercials. Instead, it is producing branded content that is more natively suited to the format and built on the same Intel technology.

It does increasingly appear that VR is not going to go the way of 3D, as there is enough support for the technology to keep it running for a while. However, it is more likely that other Immersive Media Experiences (IME) formats are likely to pick up first, most notably mobile AR. It's simpler, cheaper and is already being rolled out by app developers.

Still, VR is the most immersive and sexiest of IME flavors, and the idea that live experiences can be almost faithfully recreated digitally is difficult to ignore. All members of the value chain are likely to move cautiously though, because despite the optimism around it, VR is not going to take off in the immediate future.

From an operator perspective, VR is a difficult challenge. On the one hand, it has the power to excite customers and clearly differentiate an operator's service. On the other, it's extremely expensive to produce, near-term demand is uncertain at best, technology still has a way to go and the bandwidth requirements are, quite bluntly, eye-popping.

For now, I think experimentation and partnerships are the right way to go. Attempts at nudging VR along via coverage of individual, big-ticket events as well as experimenting with navigational interfaces and integrating 2D video screens into mixed reality environments is probably the right way to go. Even though this train is unlikely to leave suddenly, it's important network operators develop a plan now to stake a claim in the developing value-chain. Otherwise they risk being left out in the future, as they have with most other OTT applications.

ó Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation

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