Virtual Reality Could Alter How Fans Consume Sports

 

Sports fans, think you prefer a snack-filled TV den to the mayhem of the stadium now? Wait until virtual reality matures. You might never leave the couch.

As the countdown to Super Bowl Sunday continues, visitors to football-themed pavilions at the Moscone Center and Super Bowl City are being exposed to VR demonstrations that transport fans onto sidelines, into huddles and into locker rooms.

Jaunt VR and NextVR showcased NFL game footage that instantly makes regular TV look like radio. One moment you’re in the end zone as a kicker is being rushed, the next you’re on the sideline next to a 6-5 linebacker as he vents about a botched play.

Microsoft produced a video as part of a panel discussion about tech’s impact on football that envisions how users of its forthcoming augmented reality HoloLens glasses will be able to gather with friends and watch a game with virtual features laid over a live television experience.

And SAP brought its Quarterback Challenge kiosk up from Super Bowl venue Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, where all season fans have used VR to feel what it’s like to be a quarterback under pressure from a tough defense.

“VR can give you a special ticket, giving you access to athletes and what they do in a totally unique and unforgettable way,” Jaunt VR spokesman Miles Perkins says.

Although according to AR/VR industry advisers Digi-Capital there’s the promise of a combined $120 billion annual market by 2020, these remain early days for the technology. High-end hardware from the likes of Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Sony has yet to roll out to consumers and will do so at prices of up to $2,000 for computer and goggle combos. While lower-cost options such as Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR exist, these smartphone-based VR experiences remain less sophisticated than what’s on display here.

What’s more, the content itself remains in a largely experimental phase. But judging even from brief football-in-VR clips, the prospect of experiencing a live sporting event in virtual reality remains tantalizing.

“It’s about connecting fans to the sports they love in ways we could never dream of before,” says NextVR co-founder DJ Roller, whose company was behind the fall VR broadcast of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors’ first game of the season.

That means not only one day being able to call up game stats or fantasy football information in your field of view but also possibly collecting virtual autographs of players while visiting locker rooms in VR, Roller says.

Virtual reality also will also be used to make the stadium experience — often fraught with high costs and traffic hassles — more fun for fans. SAP’s Quarterback Challenge, which tasks viewers to complete a game-winning fourth-and-8 pass with a joystick-controlled Oculus Rift headset, often has long lines at Levi’s Stadium.

“Something like this can create a stronger call to action for fans to actually come to the game,” says Ward Bullard, vice president of product management for SAP, a German-based enterprise software company. “The in-home experience is so good that it helps to make a day at the stadium feel richer.”

But only 50,000 to 80,000 people can fit into an NFL stadium. So the biggest opportunity for VR remains in the home den. As live-streaming improves, image compression rates speed up and VR technology gets lighter and cheaper, it might get tougher to persuade fans to hit the road.

“It’s about sensors and the senses, and the only thing that will be missing at home is the smell and touch of being at the stadium,” says Chris Carmichael, chairman of Ubiquity Studios, which helps clients ranging from NFL Films to the Air Force develop digital assets.

Carmichael is convinced the Super Bowl in particular is fertile ground for VR experimentation because of the appeal and its ultra-expensive commercials.

“Many people watch the Super Bowl just for the ads, so that’s a great opportunity for (a company) to offer something really engaging and disruptive, which VR excels at,” he says.

Replay Technologies is another company that has been pushing hard into the sports arena with its freeD tech, 360-degree images that leverage cloud computing to turn 2-D pixels into 3-D pixels called “voxels.” The idea is that fans can review a play or a controversial referee call to their hearts’ content.

“The next step is getting this content in VR, because that’s a place where as a fan I can literally live on the field,” Replay spokesman Preston Phillips says. “This sort of technology can help broadcasters with their storytelling of the game.”

While the talk here is fittingly all about football, that gladiatorial sport might not be the ultimate showcase for sports VR, Jaunt VR’s Perkins says.

“I can’t wait for boxing in VR,” he says. “Imagine not only feeling like you’re in the ring with the boxers but also being able to turn to your right and see what Jay Z is doing in the seat next to you. Now that’s the kind of ticket you’re likely never going to get, but you can have it through VR.”

by Marco Della Cava, republished with permission USA TODAY

 

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