Sunday, July 13, 2014

NBC's Tour de France coverage -- four stars

NBC is learning how to present live sporting events on the Internet.

I've been commenting on the online coverage of the Tour de France and the Olympic Games for several years and the BBC and IT4 in England have done a better job than NBC ... until now. This year, I am watching The Tour using NBC's iPad app, and I like it a lot. (They also have Web and Android versions).

Let's look at the app. The user interface has five modes -- live video, standings, stages, riders and more:

Five viewer modes

You spend most of your time in the four-frame live video mode:

The four-frame live video user interface

Live video is shown in the upper left, and one can toggle the video to full screen. The text column on the right has frames showing the peloton and other rider groups and a curated, Twitter-like news feed. The graphic frame at the bottom has five optional modes, as shown here:

Options for the bottom window

The user can zoom or pan the bottom frame, as shown here:

Bottom window zooms and pans

The text windows on the right scroll and nearly every object on the screen is a hot link. For example, touching the word Peloton below popped up a scrollable list of the names of the riders in the peloton. Touching the rider's name, would bring up data about him.

I spend most of my time watching live video, but frequently switch to one of the other modes to check the standings or to see how a particular rider, team or nation is doing.

The stages mode is most interesting. It has facts about each stage and, more important, archives of the completed stages. Shortly after a stage is completed, you can go back and watch highlight clips or the video of the entire stage and review the standings and other statistics.

suggestions for next year

The viewing experience is good, but I'd still like to see some improvements. One would be adding a single-touch, 15-second video rewind, as in the UK ITV4 viewer. Another would be showing the text frames -- group positions and news posts -- along with the archived video of the completed stages. (Currently you can only replay the video stream). There's also some missing data -- the rider database includes a biography field, but it is not populated.

Finally, the tablet interface is terrific for "leaning forward" -- switching modes and looking things up, but the small screen in your hands or lap is not so great for just "leaning back" and watching the race. I want to be able to mirror the video on my TV screen with a single touch.

If I had an Apple TV, I could do that now with my iPad. My YATS Podcast buddies tell me that Google is updating their Chromecast app to enable mirroring the screens of selected Android phones and tablets on TV sets equipped with a Chromecast device. Better yet, how about NBC Chromecast-enabling their app?

As I said at the start, I like this experience a lot. Some part of that is attributable to NBC's app and some is due to the inherent nature of a tablet and touch interface. I also like NBC's offer -- I paid $14.99 and did not have to watch any commercials. By next year, I expect to have a five-star setup for watching The Tour -- while leaning forward and while leaning back.

Update 7/17/2014

I said one missing feature was the ability to sit back and watch race video on a TV set. Yesterday, I received an update to the Chromecast app that enables mirroring of an Android screen on a Chromecast-equipped TV set. As you see here, I can now cast my phone video to my TV set.

(This video is not from the NBC app because I have that installed on an iPad, not my phone).

This new version of the Chromecast app is labeled "beta," and it is a bit glitchy. I had to reboot the Chromecast a couple of times to get it to work.

When it is working, the video is quite acceptable, though not perfectly sharp. The imperfection is most noticeable on text which is part of the video stream -- it is a little blurry around the edges. Static text looks fine from across the room.

This brings us a step closer to the complete leaning forward and back experience for watching live sporting events -- closer to a five-star review.

Update 7/20/2014

NBC has populated the biography field in the rider database and it is now displayed. That was an easy suggestion to satisfy, but the others will require some re-architecting of the system to provide access to a buffered version of the video in real time.

Update 7/24/2014

I stated that my biggest criticism of NBC's iPad app was that archived replays of the video coverage of completed stages are not accompanied by the synchronized course map, news feed and dynamic standings of the live coverage -- if you miss a live stage, you cannot replay the full experience from the archive.

I've now discovered a similar synchronization problem during the live presentation. If you pause the live playback for a short time then restart it, the video fast-forwards to the current live point, synchronizing with the ancillary material, but, if you pause for a long time, the video does not catch up with the ancillary material so they are out of synch.

Check the following screen shot. The riders in the video pane are climbing a steep mountain, but the course-progress pane at the bottom of the screen shows them on the subsequent descent (blue). The text on the right is synchronized with the course-progress map, so it is also out of synch with the video.

That will cost them a "star" in my rating -- let's cut it to three stars.

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