2018 Playoffs | West Finals: Rockets (1) vs. Warriors (2)

Virtual reality broadcasts offer a different view of Western Conference finals for viewers

HOUSTON — Spero Dedes has been around the world broadcasting sporting events at all levels, including working as an Olympics correspondent for NBC Sports in 2004 at the ripe old age of 24.

But for all he’s seen through his own eyes, it was his view through a virtual reality headset last year that changed the way he sees the games now.

It was last year during the NCAA Tournament, Dedes and Steve Smith were calling the Sweet 16 in virtual reality, in a joint venture for Turner Sports and Intel, and the view was nothing short of amazing.

“We were blown away,” said Dedes, who does play-by-play for CBS Sports on NFL, NBA and college basketball broadcasts. “I didn’t put on the headset for the first time until the day before our first game. So we’re in the truck and the people from Intel bring us in and Smitty and put the headsets on and then when we were done we took them off and looked at each other like, ‘wow, this is incredible.’ And it was interesting to see Smitty’s reaction because he played, knows the sport inside and out and has done TV for a long time, but it’s allowed him to see the game differently, to see how play breakdown from different angles.”

Smith, an analyst for NBA TV and TNT, shook his head at the memory.

“It was truly amazing,” he said. “Just a completely different view of a game I’ve lived, played and watched basically all of my adult life. The technology … it’s unreal.”

Dedes and Stephanie Ready have been providing the “unreal” experience for NBA fans and viewers during the Western Conference finals; Game 5 is on tap tonight.

The multi-year partnership between Turner Sports and Intel provides the NBA on TNT with yet another angle to see the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors battle it out for a spot in The Finals through the groundbreaking technology that is virtual reality.

And it’s a full-blown production, similar to the one being produced on televisions all over the place. The remote production truck led by the visual reality crew sits right outside the main entrance of Toyota Center here in Houston, sandwiched by the traditional television production trucks.

“We want the experience for viewers to feel like they are actually in the arena watching,” said Nadia Banks, the experience manager for Intel Sports. “So it’s not just calling the game like it is on TV. It’s more like if you got to go watch the game with Stephanie and Spero, sitting next to them talk to them. Those court side seats in an arena can get really expensive. Most people I know can’t afford those. But this experience allows you to transport yourself there.”

For Dedes, the surprises are still coming more than a year after his first broadcast.

“I’m still seeing things and experiencing things that I haven’t before,” he said. “It’s been pretty surreal at times.”

For folks who have not experienced a game in virtual reality, just think of having a virtual court side seat at your favorite arena with the opportunity to view the action like you were in the middle of mix, while you’re actually in the comfort of your own home.

The virtual reality broadcast has its own producer and director and staffers providing graphics and all the bells and whistles of a traditional broadcast, but what you see is ultimately up to the viewer. They do their own replays, have their own pregame show.

With state of the art cameras facing the middle of the floor from the scorer’s table, perched on both baskets and above the tunnels exiting the floor behind the baselines, viewers can get 180 angle views of the action by choosing whichever feed they want to during the game.

“It’s really about how do you get the best of both worlds,” Banks said as she gave a tour of the production truck and then the camera positions inside Toyota Center before Game 2 of this series. “You get all of this, plus the conversation of the announcers guiding you through the experience. Ultimately, at Intel Sports we wanted to change the way fans watch games. We wanted to make everything more immersive How do you provide new pieces of content that also let your story tell and experience the game in ways, and with angles that you normally wouldn’t be able to.”

As far as Dedes can tell, it’s working.

“It’s incredible, the technology,” he said. “When you watch a game on TV, you’re seeing it through a lens, seeing it through a prism of television. In VR, the players look like they are running right past you. There’s a freaky element to this, a depth perception element that is unlike anything out there that I am aware of.”

With his traditional broadcast journalism training, Dedes isn’t sure how long it will take for the virtual reality viewing to catch on as a mainstream outlet for viewers. He’s convinced, though that it’ll be a regular part of the experience for plenty of fans who embrace the technology.

“With Intel, they are moving really fast on the technology front,” he said. “We’ve noticed a difference from doing this for the first time during the NCAA Tournament last year during March of 2017 to now. It’s stark, the number of improvements they have made in just that one year. But I really think this is going to become a real viewing experience for a lot of people who don’t want the hassle of going to the arena and who want something different, an alternative to how they consume sports and games.

“You know this. Television has changed. People’s viewing habits have changed. They want alternatives. They want advanced technology, the latest things, and this sort of checks all of the boxes. It’s been pretty incredible to see it from this perspective.”

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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