How NextVR and the NBA are bringing VR from the sidelines to center court

I’m standing at the back of a cramped production trailer in the bowels of Portland’s Moda Center where the NextVR crew is busy broadcasting the Blazers/Cavs game live. The game is electric, yet everyone in the trailer seems a little down — Lebron James just threw down what some are calling the best dunk of his career, which just happened to be at the hoop where the NextVR crew was down a backboard camera for tonight’s game. They’re afraid they missed out on capturing the moment in all its glory.

But I saw it. In startlingly close virtual reality, no less, captured by NextVR’s camera mounted just beneath the backboard (which was working just fine, thanks very much). And it was epic.

I tell the crew as much. There are some smiles and a bit of relief, but there’s no time for reflection right now. They’ve got a live show to put on for an eager crowd of early VR adopters across the globe. And as the saying goes, the show must go on.

A tech match made in VR heaven

The NBA has been good to NextVR, and vice versa. The two forged a strong relationship when NextVR landed a contract with the NBA’s League Pass, which allowed the company access to capture the live action from multiple vantage points inside stadiums across the country and broadcast it all globally in virtual reality.

For the 2017/2018 season, NextVR will broadcast a total of 27 live games to League Pass subscribers, replete with highlights, replays, and mondo dunks like the one Lebron just dropped on the Blazers (the Blazers still won, just sayin’) for free.

“We basically had each other at ‘hello,’” said NextVR CEO David Cole in our recent interview. “We loved our early basketball VR tests and so did they.”

“The NBA is a very innovative organization and they recognized very early (more than 3 years ago) that the NBA fan experience can be greatly enhanced by VR,” said Cole. “Because we’ve had such a long runway to work with the NBA, we’ve been able to innovate production technology (e.g. court-safe cameras like the behind the glass cam) that radically benefit the content.”

For each broadcast, NextVR usually sets up eight different cameras throughout each stadium, including two behind each backboard, a courtside camera, overhead setups, and more. It’s not just the courtside action that NextVR streams to its online viewers, either.

Two roving production crews (one for the Eastern Conference, one for the West) capture behind-the-scenes footage and locker-room interviews in lieu of commercial breaks. The crew even captures scenes around each city (for Portland that naturally included a waterfall) all to give viewers the full experience. It’s the proverbial “next best thing to being there.”

And no one is doing it quite like NextVR.

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A quick pivot

None of this would be possible if NextVR hadn’t been impressively light on its feet when faced with a change-up pitch in the ever-evolving entertainment industry, one that could have been catastrophic. Like Netflix before it (sans the Quickster debacle), the company formerly known as Next3D had to reinvent itself when the budding 3D broadcast industry collapsed in 2012.

“The decision [to move to VR] was easy once we took the prototype content out to partners (mostly in the live sports broadcast space) and demonstrated VR,” said Cole. “We were immeasurably catalyzed by their response. This was a quick 90-degree start towards VR, and we swung for the fences.”

“This was a quick 90-degree start towards VR, and we swung for the fences.”

Part of the muscle behind that swing for said fences was its complex compression technology that was already set up to broadcast 3D streams.

“When we adapted (our patented) compound entropy to VR, we realized that we could construct a mesh from the occlusion extraction process and send that mesh with the video stream,” Cole said. “This means when you are viewing NextVR content, you’re actually in a virtual environment that is a facsimile of the actual captured environment.”

In other words, League Pass viewers are not actually seeing the live VR broadcast in its native form, but a bitmapped version of the broadcast — a fully, reconstructed virtual world mapped out by the information captured by NextVR’s third-generation stereoscopic cameras. While that may seem like a lot to wrap your head around, when it comes to the viewing experience, it makes all the difference.

Choose your VR adventure

As a tech writer, I’ve had the chance to experience multiple VR simulations, but NextVR’s broadcast is different. The wall-eye look — characterized by blurred edges and exaggerated focus at the center of the image — that’s common to many VR “experiences” simply isn’t an issue with NextVR, thanks to the company’s “facsimile” of the captured environment.

It’s not just the natural scaling of NextVR’s broadcasts that make the content so accessible, either. The company has worked hard to bring the “reality” portion of VR to its League Pass content, with little touches like fades that mimic human blinking as the broadcast transitions from camera to camera as it follows the ball across the court.

“Our show directors really pride themselves on moving your POV (point of view) with the action, without disrupting presence,” Cole said. “In addition to the produced show, we also offer the ability to choose your own camera position in almost all of our experiences.”

All of this provides a more natural transition into the VR world, helping to break down the barriers between you and the action and allowing for the all-important suspension of disbelief. While I only watched the game for a few minutes over NextVR’s Samsung Galaxy GearVR headset, it didn’t take long before I was fully immersed in the action.

What feels alien at first slowly becomes less so, until it’s just you, perched behind the backboard, watching Lebron take flight. Looking around inside the environment becomes second nature, and feels surprisingly realistic — until you run into the border of NextVR’s 180-degree broadcast, that is, and the world fades into a blue haze.

But that is set to change soon as well.

Six degrees of freedom

Not to be confused with the Kevin Bacon game, six degrees of freedom (or 6DOF, as the company refers to it), is the next big step for NextVR, promising a fully immersive virtual environment.

“6DOF is the way your head wants to work. It’s just natural,” Cole said. “If someone stands up in front of you at a game, you’d simply look around them. This will be possible when the next step in NextVR’s transmission process rolls out.”

We’re told it will still be impressively clear and clean when the next generation of VR headsets begin rolling out to users.

While NextVR’s 6DOF broadcast transmission is ready now, NextVR’s head of sports, Josh Earl, tells us the company is essentially waiting for the other links in the broadcast chain to catch up. That’s true when it comes to resolution, too, which accounted for our only real beef with NextVR’s streams. Currently, the resolution can’t compete with your HDTV, let alone 4K content. But that’s more of an issue with the tech surrounding NextVR, including limitations in both bandwidth and hardware.

Earl says that, while streaming bandwidth offers some restrictions currently, the next generation of VR headsets will go a long way in improving NextVR’s image resolution, which is already captured in 6K by stereoscopic cameras (which NextVR is incredibly secretive about). That translates to resolution that sits just under 4K Ultra HD once split into a stereoscopic stream, but we’re told it will still be impressively clear and clean when the next generation of VR headsets begin rolling out to users. It should also be mentioned that 4K TV broadcasts are still in their early stages.

Earl calls the Oculus Go a game changer for the company, not just because it will offer higher streaming resolution than current headsets in its class, but also because it’s going to be a lot more accessible to potential League Pass subscribers thanks to its low price point of just $200.

The future of VR

It seems like VR, on the whole, has been right on the cusp of breaking out for eons when measured in tech time. But NextVR’s fearless leader (naturally) sees a very bright future ahead for the technology, framing it as the eventual keystone of all things entertainment.

“In five years realism will increase dramatically,” Cole said. “Your VR headset will become your automatic go-to device for sports and entertainment content.”

“In 10 years the idea of a non-immersive playback medium will seem like black and white TV,” Cole continued. “The devices will be nearly ubiquitous … and VERY central to lifestyle-based computing. They will become the new smartphone.”

For now, NextVR and the NBA are moving in tandem to write that future, one game at a time.