Blame COVID for a lack of AR and VR at the Tokyo Olympics

USA Today's emerging tech team embraced creative workarounds to produce an AR experience for the Olympics during the pandemic. Not every project had that luxury.

Screenshots of USA Today’s 2020 Olympics AR experience

USA Today's Tokyo Olympics AR experience was produced during the pandemic.

Image: USA Today

Unused AR headsets. A VR app widely panned by reviewers. A lackluster catalog of 360-degree videos. The Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to start this week, won't exactly be a major showcase for immersive media.

That's not for a lack of interest: A number of companies had planned to go all out with AR and VR at the event. Then the pandemic hit, the games had to be rescheduled and production schedules for immersive experiences ground to a screeching halt.

That's exactly what happened to the USA Today Network team, which had started to work on multiple Olympics-themed AR experiences around new types of sports at the games, including one featuring an interview with Team USA rock climber Kyra Condie, in early 2020.

"We had started development of the project back in February 2020," said Gannett and USA Today Emerging Technology Director Ray Soto. "Just a couple weeks after the interview, the pandemic hit, forcing us to scrap our entire 2020 editorial calendar including additional Olympic AR opportunities we had been exploring with the editorial team."

Soto and his team eventually decided earlier this year to pick up where they had left things 12 months prior, despite the fact that the fate of the games was very much uncertain. "We had to be prepared to launch the projects, so we pushed ahead," Soto said.

His team had already captured enough assets to finish the AR experience featuring Condie. However, another experience featuring skateboarder Tom Schaar was still in its early stages. "Considering we didn't have the opportunity for the Emerging Tech team to travel just a few short months ago, we worked with our LA-based USA Today video production team by training them via Zoom on our photogrammetry process," Soto said.

The original plan had also called for recording videos of Schaar that would then be used to create 3D animations. Without the ability to easily capture new material, Soto's team had to rely on archival footage. "With videos provided to us by Vans, we used artificial intelligence to process short clips into animated assets that would eventually be integrated into the final project," he said.

In the end, Soto and his team managed to finish both the Schaar and the Condie experience in time and launch it within the USA Today app for iOS and Android on Monday morning.

Not everyone has been so lucky. Intel and NTT Docomo had planned to show off a number of immersive experiences throughout the event in Tokyo to highlight the power of AR and 5G. Visitors of the Tokyo Aquatics Centre were supposed to be able to pick up special AR headsets to watch races with immersive graphics overlays. Those headsets will now in all likelihood remain unused, as visitors have been banned from all Olympic events due to a rise of COVID cases in Japan. (Intel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Other immersive initiatives announced ahead of the games haven't fared much better. An effort to showcase all 55 sports of the Olympics with immersive video has fallen short of its goal, with the official Tokyo 2020 YouTube channel only featuring 360-degree or 180-degree videos for a total of 13 sports thus far.

Not all of these shortcomings can be blamed on COVID, though. Comcast launched an NBC Olympics VR app for Facebook's Oculus Quest headset that is supposed to stream live competitions in VR. However, judging from multiple negative reviews, the app appears to struggle with technical problems; reviewers also took issue with the fact that the company is restricting viewing of full events to cable subscribers.

The irony is that AR and VR could have been a perfect substitute for a sports event that fans aren't able to attend in person. But for anyone hoping to experience the Olympics in truly immersive fashion, there's always 2022.

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