Tech's triple axel
My fondest memories of the Winter Olympics are watching gold medal performances by ski racer Franz Klammer, ice dancer John Curry and — fast forward a few decades to a series of TVs in random bars — Shaun White cavorting down a half pipe. Suffice to say, I don't have the time to binge watch the dailies any more.
The Olympics have become, like the World Cup and the Super Bowl, global billboards for the boring brands (Bud, Visa, Coke). But carriers of the Winter Olympics are trying to inject a little excitement by advancing the way we view the spectacle at home.
I recently looked at Comcast and Intel's offering for the Winter Olympics that open in Pyeongchang, South Korea on Friday, Feb. 9.
For one, Intel is getting into the content game. Intel does a lot of fringe things to try to stoke excitement in its bread and butter chips. This year it's involved in providing content on its True VR platform of key moments of the Games. These key moments, (listed here: bit.ly/2rC2HPj) include the opening and closing ceremonies (Feb. 9 and 25 respectively), as well as blue ribbon events such as Men's Downhill Skiing, Pairs Free Figure Skating, Short Track Speed Skating and Men's Big Air.
Some of the events are live — as in, no spoilers possible — and some are video on demand.
Big air day
Intel's True VR is the budget kind, meaning you don't have to invest is a fancy headset like an HTC Vive. There are three ways to watch it. Using the Samsung Gear, just requires a $50 set of plastic goggles into which you clip your Samsung phone. Using the Google Dreamview (same thing, but with a Google phone in a grey felt carrier). Third, in 180/360 Video Experience (no headset, just hold your phone up in front of your face).
You download the NBC Sports VR app, don the headset and click to start streaming to your phone. (You need an online ID to watch the content, just as you would with an ex's HBO or ESPN login and password.)
Suddenly, you're in Seoul listening to Korean speed skaters talking about their rise to athlete pro status. From the ancient streets to the modern locker room (creep factor five) you can follow them around and listen to, well, their how-I-made-it stories. You can also crane your neck and look around, although this seems like hard work.
Out on the snow and ice it's a bit more interesting. From a head-mounted camera you can see what a slalom skier sees as they flatten those bendy poles. You can follow the shiny butt of the speed skater you are drafting, or leap off a 200-meter ski jump. The latter feels quite authentic. Like testing yourself on a roller coaster, this is one time virtual G forces and vertigo are welcome.
Intel's modus operandi is to record the players in say a football game with 60 cameras, which create a 3D image through which a camera can virtually fly. It may sometimes look choppy like a video game, but it's real video. On the slopes they use camera pods. These look like black bricks on tripods which carry up to six 5K cameras.
In the headset the video is surprisingly grainy and blurry, and the home screen environment is quite chunky resolution wise. You are placed in a high-ceilinged room with crudely polygonal cherry blossom trees above the skylights, and a sunken seating area, tapestries and an unstocked bar. I felt like I was in Oracle founder Larry Ellison's man cave, circa 2001.
You can point and click by following a tiny white dot and tapping the temple of the goggles, or use the small remote, which I found temperamental. Sometimes its onscreen laser beam would aim at an obtuse angle. Other times it just wouldn't turn on, instead cycling through a rainbow series of light on its mini LED. Add to that the general inconvenience of faffing about with a phone which overheats in the headset, it started to feel as much trouble as getting dressed for a day on Mt. Hood.
It was interesting, although I will reserve judgement until I've seen how it streams, and whether it inspires me to learn the names of the new generation of Klammers and Currys.
I'm not totally down on VR, so I looked around the virtual reality app store. There I stumbled, via a 1GB download, into a fascinating series/game called Playback. You the viewer are a normie-looking tech mogul with an attentive girlfriend, living in a San Francisco loft and about to make pots of money (Or not!). It has that Black Mirror charm, where in the future everything is tidy and no one can act very well.
Television has some life left in it. Comcast has changed some Xfinity stores which look like cellphone shops. The Xfinity store at 7037 N.E. Sandy Blvd. sure feels like the kind of place you sign a binding contract that you may or may not regret. Who knew they sold smartphones and speakers? (In a quaintly low-tech touch there are plastic bins for returning your cable box.)
Those with Comcast's Xfinity service have long been able to speak into their microphones "show me romantic comedies," and get an instant playlist. (It's like Google only with less distractions.) For the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Comcast's NBCUniversal (the channel which always springs for the Olympics) has set up some new keywords. Since the games are during the night on the west coast, they envisage viewers saying into their remotes "show me Jamie Anderson" (the female snowboarder) to catch up on all appearances. You can also set it to record them. All the narrative fluff that surrounds the Olympics — anthems, heart-warming stories, which designer made the wretched sweaters — is there to be served up alongside the 50 channels, with all events being shown live. That's 2,400 hours of programming, which is more than the last two Olympics combined.
Other searchable categories include biggest spills, funniest moments and hockey shootouts.
Comcast created the technology to make this happen — it's not just a search algorithm tacked on to a stream.
Xfinity is also getting into the e-dashboard game with its Olympics Daily Summary page.
The company is offering more events in ultrahigh definition 4K as well, the better to showcase what in 2018 has become the default standard for TV sets. According to a company spokesperson, the goal is to being the games to life. The X1 Stream App makes it possible to watch content on any device, as long as you have an NBCUniversal log in.
All of which shows that television is becoming more interactive in the way that web surfing is interactive: searching by keywords and browsing in endless sprawl of interests. Meanwhile the personal stories of the actors/athletes, and the closeness with which they are followed around, increases. Is the cast of characters big enough to keep our attention?
Tech in the Winter Olympics
Intel is focusing on five athletes at the Winter Olympics, in a not very America First manner.
• Ayumu Hirano - Japanese snowboarding phenom and silver medalist in halfpipe at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014.
• Fan Kexin - Chinese short track speedskater and silver medalist in the 1,000 meter at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014.
• Hannah Brandt* - Forward on the U.S. women's Ice Hockey Team and University of Minnesota's all-time points leader.
• Marissa Brandt - South Korean ice hockey defender and former star at Gustavus Adolphus College.
• Maia and Alex Shibutani - U.S. ice dancing
*Marissa is the adoptive sister of Hannah. Their dueling Instagram feeds are @marissacbrandt and @hannahbrandt16
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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