Last Week in Tech Policy #68B: The Olympics in Virtual Reality

(by Emily Caditz, Colorado Law 2L)

Last month, the world tuned into the XXIII Olympic Winter Games held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The Olympics is one of the world’s most celebrated sports competitions and gives viewers from all around the world the opportunity to watch the most talented athletes from their home country compete head-to-head against athletes from other participating nations.

Generally, the public has watched television, listened to the radio, or read the newspaper to keep up with Olympic coverage. In Pyeongchang, however, Intel partnered with the Olympic Broadcasting Services to provide Olympic viewers with a different Olympic viewing experience: virtual reality (“VR”).

VR uses hardware and software to make its user perceive that a virtual environment is “real.” A VR user can explore a “three dimensional, computer generated system” with a headset, gloves, a treadmill, or a haptic suit. In other words, as compared to traditional entertainment experiences, VR is a more immersive because VR users can interact with a virtual world that feels like their own.

In Pyeongchang, in-home viewers had the opportunity to watch up to 30 Olympic events with Intel’s VR technology, True VR. True VR uses 36 to 72 360 degree or 180 degree cameras, placed in racecourses, on athletes, or in arenas, to bring its viewers closer to the action than ever before. For example, Intel had cameras on a bobsled as it went down the track, in the snowboard half-pipe during Shaun White’s gold medal run, and in the curling arena. Many who watch the Olympics at home would rather participate in the Olympics or watch the Olympics in person. With True VR, its users could have a more realistic Olympic viewing experience without actually going to Pyeongchang. In the United States, viewers could watch the Olympics True VR on the NBC Sports VR application.

VR Olympic coverage debuted in the Rio di Janeiro Olympic Summer Games, but True VR is more advanced than the VR systems used in Rio. Unlike the VR systems used in the Rio Olympics, the VR systems in Pyeongchang offered live coverage. True VR also gives its viewer several camera angles to choose from, as well as audio integration and real-time leaderboards. While True VR is more advanced than past Olympic VR systems, it is far from a perfect substitute for attending the Olympics in person. True VR viewers complained of poor image quality, a glitchy viewing app, and camera positions that did not capture much of the event.

However, as VR becomes more ubiquitous, VR will have to grapple with variety of legal issues, including the right of publicity. The right of publicity is a right that protects “any recognizable aspects of one’s persona, such as one’s name, photo or likeness, and prevents the unauthorized commercial use thereof.” While Olympic athletes’ contracts with the International Olympic Committee precludes them from objecting to Intel, an official Olympic sponsor, using their image in True VR during the Olympic Games, if an athlete does particularly well, it would be an economic boon for other VR companies to use their likeness after the Games. For example, consider if a VR company could realistically simulate snowboarding as Chloe Kim, the Olympic gold-medal winner in half pipe. Kim’s popularity has soared since her Olympic win, gaining 300,000+ Twitter followers. Consequently, athletes like Chloe Kim, will have to protect their Right of Publicity from unlawful depiction in VR as VR becomes more popular.

VR could also implicate private law. For example, Intel included “Team Intel,” a group of Olympic athletes, in its promotional material. This included personal stories of how VR helped their loved ones watch them participate in the Olympics. Ads that feature Olympic athletes implicate Rule 40, a provision of the Olympic Charter that bans non-official Olympic sponsors from using an athlete’s name or image during a blackout period. Since Intel is an official Olympic sponsor, its “Team Intel” ads are not violating Rule 40; and Rule 40 is meant to protect Intel’s interests. However, as VR becomes more popular, during Rule 40’s blackout period, it will be more tempting for non-official Olympic sponsors to sell and advertise VR technology that depicts Olympic athletes, likely violating Rule 40. For example, consider if a VR company had VR training runs of Mikaela Shiffrin, a popular American ski racer and Olympic gold medalist, that could more realistically depict the sensation of being on-course with Shiffrin than Intel’s VR technology could. While it would be logical to advertise VR of Shiffrin during the Olympics, any advertisement doing so would likely violate Rule 40.

Even with VR’s potential technical and legal problems, VR is likely to become more common. VR technology is becoming more advanced and its price keeps going down. At the same time, the public is becoming more aware of VR. Last week, Warner Brothers released Steven Spielberg’s VR centered blockbuster film, Ready Player One. In Ready Player One, most of the world spends the majority of its time in The OASIS, a VR world that is real enough to be preferred to real world interaction. While we are far from having the technologically capability to create the OASIS, Ready Player One touches on one certainty: VR is going to advance, and it will change how its users interact with their non-virtual realities.