Come interview Olympic legend Sir Steve Redgrave, they said. He’s still in Rio at the 2016 games, they said. He’ll show you around the Team GB Olympic camp, they said. What an opportunity, right?
Well, as our excitement levels hit fever pitch and we tried to work out which Speedo would be best for Copacabana Beach, we were quickly brought back down to earth with the caveat that this would be an interview in VR. Wait, what?
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That’s a thing now? Damn you, technology.
Though it meant we wouldn’t get to spend a couple of days kicking about in the Rio sun, this was still a pretty exciting prospect. This interview would be a world’s first.
THE TECH BEHIND THE WORLD’S FIRST VR INTERVIEW
Just as your parents are finally getting used to Skype, VR’s coming along to make digital conversations a whole lot more engaging, but a damned sight harder to understand. While the set-up might still be a faff – it took a team of Samsung techs a good 30 minutes to get things running and tested for our conversation – the actual tech needed for a transatlantic VR chat is already readily available and affordable too.
On one end you need a 360-degree camera, such as the £349 Samsung Gear 360 sat in front of Sir Steve, at the other a VR headset, like the £79.99 Samsung Gear VR strapped to Digital Spy‘s noggin. That’s pretty much it. Well, aside from a staggeringly strong internet connection that is. Thought streaming Netflix put your broadband under a lot of strain? Try beaming all the data needed for a 360-degree video in real time – it’s on another level.
Sure, the technology might not be in every home yet, but it’s clear after just a single VR chat that this is where things are moving, and we’re pretty excited about that.
BUT DID THE EXPERIENCE FEEL REAL?
In short, no, not really. Yes, it gave new levels of realism to the conversation, one that squinting at Skype on a small laptop or smartphone screen just can’t match, but it has its own reality-failing issues. The biggest of these is image quality. It just isn’t good enough – yet.
The screen on the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge we fitted within the Gear VR headset may be stunning, but put it within mere millimetres of your eyes and you can pick out each and every one of its 2560 x 1440 pixels. Add into this low stream qualities and that Olympic hero in front of you – or more likely your mate or sibling when it becomes the norm – is rendered a largely blurry mess.
Although it was clear who it was who was sat in front of us, things like facial expressions were out of the question. The detail just wasn’t there. While the whole experience might not have convinced us that we were in Rio – we could look around the stunning GB House but couldn’t feel the beating sun or reach out and interact with any of the objects around us – it made the actual chat more engaging than a simple Skype call.
Ultimately, being able to look around the room was interesting, but for something like a face-to-face chat it didn’t revolutionise the experience. All that often wasted data could have used to improve the detail front and centre. It’s the same reason why a lot of VR porn only offers a 180-degree of view rather than a full 360-degree picture. Much of the time what’s going on behind you isn’t all that interesting.
WHAT SIR STEVE HAD TO SAY
This isn’t a one-way experience, and although I could sit with my face inside a VR headset, enjoying being transported to the other side of the world, I was curious how it felt on the other end, staring into one of the many lenses of a VR camera. It turns out, the less invasive end of the VR conversation isn’t too far from what many of us already do with FaceTime or Skype.
“I’ve done lots of interviews, including a lot over Skype and a lot of speaking to camera and not seeing the pictures,” Sir Steve explained. Discussing the VR element, he added: “It’s a bit weird seeing the camera there, other cameras going in different directions and then looking over my shoulder and seeing you lot sitting around a table staring into your goggles.
“It is quite weird but not that extreme.”
According to Steve, however, these immersive video experiences will really come into their own when integrated with the sporting action we’ve all spent a couple of weeks enjoying. “The sports that are harder to film, they’re the ones that are going to get the biggest benefit from it,” he explained, and we have to agree.
While it’s nice feeling like you’re chatting to someone face-to-face, looking around a room – however fancy it is – doesn’t feel that special. Virtually putting yourself in a boat, on a bike or strapped to Usain Bolt’s shoe, however, and we’d be all for it.
ARE VR PHONE CALLS THE FUTURE?
While being part of a world’s first was exciting, this technology still has some way to go before we’ll be pulling on a VR headset every time we want to phone home. Although the days of passive phone calls might not be gone yet, thanks to two-way, globe-crossing VR conversations, they’re certainly in the early stages of being on the way out, in some capacity at least.
Thanks to a 360-degree cameras in Rio and virtual reality headsets here in London, what could have been a boring phone call interview was now an immersive, interactive affair – albeit one where blindly taking notes had us scrawling illegible text like a child across our notepad, and the desk. Being digitally transported to sit in front of the five-time gold medalist is special, no matter how poor the image quality. OK, so it might not have been a couple of days kicking about in the Rio sun, but we feel like we’ve been there at the start of something more special.