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VR Stumbles at the Super Bowl

Much like the Atlanta Falcons, those who make and distribute virtual reality had a golden opportunity at the Super Bowl — but they blew it. By failing to capture or even really engage with a massive mainstream audience, the VR world set itself further back.

It wasn’t that they didn’t try. Both Animal Planet and Fox Sports offered 360 content related to the game, and two ads that aired my local market (San Francisco) featured virtual reality. Unfortunately, none of the 360 content on offer was very good, and I can’t imagine anyone who was coming to VR for the first time leaving with the impression that this was the future of content.

Animal Planet’s 360 version of the Puppy Bowl should have been a total slam dunk. It’s a virtual version of real cute puppies — how could that be anything but amazing? Alas, the experience, which could be viewed in the Discovery VR app, fell victim to shoddy stitching and bad camera placement. On more than one occasion I found myself staring at a wall, with no dogs in sight, and having to move my phone and crane my neck in order to get a glimpse at the action. And while the stitching mistakes probably would have been missed by a VR novice, they still didn’t look great, and the whole thing felt rushed. It was clear that someone plopped a few 360 cameras in the middle of the field and called it day, and that led to a mediocre experience. It would be one thing if this were just some experiment, but Discovery is placing big bets on VR this year, and Puppy Bowl VR is something that could have drawn in a lot of first time viewers.

The Fox Sports experience was no better. At least the Puppy Bowl, for all its faults, had cute dogs — Fox Sports VR merely had far-away, unclear spots and a confusing interface. The pre-game content felt mostly like camera tests, and the content during the game was slow to load, with a perspective from the sidelines, meaning that the action on the field was viewed at a distance. While this camera placement does make sense (after all, putting a 360 camera in the middle of the field would have been difficult if not impossible), it led to an underwhelming experience. For a seasoned VR user it was merely disappointing, but for a novice who wanted to try out a new technology, it would have been a major turn-off.

In terms of ads, there were two that featured VR technology — one pretty good and one actually amazing. The Gear VR ad came towards the end of the game ad and featured footage of people using the headset intercut with scenes from the new 24 reboot that premiered after the game. While the ad was meant to show how immersive being inside the headset is, some of the frightened reactions it showed might have scared people off — but overall, it was a solid ad that sold people on the idea that they could easily be inside a TV show.

The Hyundai ad, on the other hand, was legitimately excellent, although it did showcase VR as something for special occasions, not everyday use. Members of the military stationed abroad were allowed to enter special domes and watch the game with family members who were actually there, using livestreaming and a 360 camera. The ad was a total tearjerker, but painted VR in a positive light, as a way to connect with loved ones and enjoy something together, rather than something to be done for thrills.

Overall, the Super Bowl felt like a missed opportunity for VR — hopefully by the time the NBA Finals roll around, we’ll be a little further along.

On Friday, we provided a detailed recap of the week’s VR/AR business stories which we produce with our partner Vertebrae, the VR/AR monetization platform and ad network. Here’s an analysis of the top stories in VR/AR from this week.