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Pac-12 Networks Ran Pilot Program of YouTube’s VR180

After USC football won last fall’s conference championship, JuanPedro Huerta took a risk. As Pac-12 Networks’ digital video features producer, he was tasked with capturing the Trojans’ on-field celebration. Carrying an experimental 180-degree virtual reality camera from YouTube, Huerta found a spot in the end zone and defied a cameraman’s prime directive to avoid interaction. The decision paid off.

“Usually as a camera operator, you want to be a fly on the wall to capture moments without being intrusive of the student-athletes and their family and friends as they celebrate,” Huerta said. “But with the VR180 camera, I took the chance to let them know, ‘Hey this is virtual reality right here,’ and they responded with ‘oh, word?’ And then started getting around it and putting the trophy toward the camera, really engaging with the shot.”

The resulting footage, he said, highlighted the power of the technology. YouTube had approached the Pac-12 Networks to be a testing partner, and the camera had arrived just days before USC defeated Stanford 31-28 at Levi’s Stadium. What began as a few-week pilot then turned into three months of VR content.

The half-view VR180 imagery—created by Google’s Daydream team in conjunction with its YouTube division—hopes to balance the immersive power of VR with the challenge of editing 360-degree content. Ryan Currier, the Pac-12 Networks’ VP of digital business and products, said capturing traditional VR footage is not too difficult, but editing, cutting, and inserting graphics made the production cumbersome.

“Everything about that is next-level complicated that requires new software and sometimes more processing power and often can take weeks to make a fully produced piece of content,” Currier said. “One of the promises of VR180 is that you’re supposed to be able to capture the content, use the software and turn it around and publish it within a day or even hours.”

Rather than record live competitions with VR180, Currier said they focused on “access storytelling” like celebrations or short, intimate snippets of action. With 360, Huerta said, the operator inevitably either ends up in the shot or the camera gets knocked over if he or she doesn’t stand sentry.

The VR180 cameras, however, are four inches long and two inches tall, similar to a standard consumer digital camera. Pac-12 Networks initially used a makeshift device that looked like two GoPros wired together in a box, but consumer-grade cameras made by Linovo and Yi are either on the market or will be imminently.

Candice Espinoza Coots, the director of short form content for Pac-12 Networks, found that gymnastics made for especially compelling content.

“Because of the access we have with our schools and student-athletes at Pac-12 Networks, we were able to be right on the floor for a meet between UCLA and Cal, which among them had five Olympians,” she said. “We focused on the vault and beam, and in fact those moments are some of my favorite from all of the VR content we’ve captured so far, being right there by the beam to capture these amazing athletes. With the camera being quite small and non-intrusive, we were never in the way.”

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The finished product turned out so well that, during a presentation to the conference’s senior leadership, a boardroom full of presidents, chancellors, and athletics directors all donned VR headsets to watch. (VR180 can be viewed in 3D using Google’s Cardboard or Daydream products, as well as PlayStation VR, but anyone can watch the 2D product.) Gymnastics coaches then reached out about using the footage in recruiting.

The Pac-12 Networks team found the gear easy to travel with, “which I think is not something to be understated,” Coots said. Editing was also much easier. YouTube provided cloud-based editing software, and the raw footage could be imported into Adobe Premiere for graphics and other post-production tools. The Pac-12 Networks team plans on acquiring a market VR180 camera and continuing to collaborate with YouTube on innovative projects in the space.

“At this point, I’d still say it’s more in the experimental phase,” Currier said. “I think we’ll try different types of content, different sports. I wouldn’t yet consider it a franchise that we’re being programmatic about yet, but I think we’re certainly bullish on the concept.”

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