NBC Sports Brings Virtual Reality to Horse Racing at Kentucky Derby

NBC Sports Group, NextVR deploy seven cameras at Churchill Downs for live VR production

Live virtual reality hits the track for the first time this weekend. NBC Sports Group has teamed up with NextVR at the Kentucky Derby to produce the first-ever live VR horse-racing experience. NBC is hopping aboard the VR bandwagon in style: its first live VR production will feature a whopping seven camera positions — five on the track and two in the paddock — at Churchill Downs.

“As we dip our toe into the virtual-reality realm, our thought process was ‘where is the most iconic place that we can transport the user at home?’ Churchill Downs is that place for us,” says NBC Sports Group Director of Production Technology Matt Celli, who is also directing the VR feed. “NBC Sports is really proud to have this be our first real foray into this world.”

NBC Sports Group has partnered with NextVR to produce the VR experience at Churchill Downs, which will include the Derby and the two prior races, including the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic.


Live virtual reality makes its horse-racing debut this Saturday at Churchill Downs, when NBC Sports Group and NextVR produce the first-ever Kentucky Derby live-VR experience.

“We believe NextVR is the leader in the live–virtual-reality space,” says Celli. “We have worked with them on this project for the last six weeks to figure out everything from camera placement to encoding to graphics and the overall user experience.”

The seven-camera complement is among the largest to date for a live VR production. The five NextVR camera rigs on the track, which each consist of a pair of RED 4K cameras, are positioned on the high side of the finish line, below the finish line (adjacent to the owners’ suites), coming into turn one, going into turn two, coming out of turn two, and on the backstretch. Two additional rigs have been deployed in the paddock to showcase the horses before the parade to the starting gate.

“Geographically, the overall size of what we’re trying to cover necessitated [this many cameras],” says Celli. “The track is over a mile around so we need all those camera positions to cover the entire track and tell the story for VR.”

In addition to the seven camera angles, NBC will insert a virtual videoboard — mimicking the giant video display at Churchill Downs — into the VR experience that will feature the NBC live linear telecast. This videoboard display will also include NBC Sports Group-produced feature stories, statistics, race data, and updated betting odds.

“With a footprint this large, we can’t cut cameras the way that the linear broadcast does to tell the story,” says Celli. “So we are going to insert a virtual [videoboard] with the output of the [linear-telecast] production from [producer] Rob Hyland and [director] Drew Esocoff. The viewer at home is used to having certain pieces of information and storytelling [elements] thrown their way. Even the user at a game can look up at the videoboard and see a replay or the score. That is how we are trying to serve this audience as well.”

The audio feed will include the race call from NBC’s Larry Collmus, as well as commentary from NBC announcers Tom Hammond, Jerry Bailey, and Randy Moss.

NextVR, which is currently constructing a fleet of VR-specific mobile units, has deployed a flypack at Churchill Downs, which includes a 2M/E switcher, 14 Sony CCUs controlling the seven camera rigs, an audio board, and the company’s custom VR-encoder kit.

“When you bring new technology like this into an amazing existing team led by Tim DeKime, John Roché, and Ken Goss, it’s a lot to ask of them since these guys already have a monumental job [producing the linear telecast],” says Celli. “But they have accepted this technology with open arms, and it’s made it great for all of us. We’re extremely excited about the potential of VR here at the Derby.”

The live virtual-reality presentation of NBC’s coverage of the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby will begin at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday. The virtual-reality presentation of the Kentucky Derby will be available free through the NBC channel on the NextVR portal. Samsung Gear VR owners can download the NextVR app on any Gear VR headset-compatible phones. For detailed instructions, go to www.nextvr.com/gearvr-live.

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