By Dr. Mark Janas |
There’s a silver lining in every cloud, even in the cloud of what seems like an endless pandemic. In the world of sports, one of those silver linings has come in the form of the continuing development of virtual sports technologies.
This author uses the term “virtual sports” to refer to an esports that requires similar skill and/or fitness as the “real sport” equivalent. For example, the skills required in live golf translate to playing a round on a golf simulator. A fit cyclist or rower is likely to do well in a virtual event on an indoor smart bike or smart rower. (Hand controller-based video games, such as Fortnite or the popular Madden series of football video games, would not be included in this definition.)
Of course, anyone following virtual sports over the last couple of years has witnessed somewhat of a (r)evolution in this burgeoning subset of sports. The 2020/21 Tokyo Olympic Games showcased virtual sports in several forms. SIM motorsports events have been broadcasted on national television. Competitive, on-line bike racing has exploded on platforms like Zwift.com. Professional athletes in “real sports” have even been recruited from the virtual sports ranks. The prospective benefits and advantages of virtual sports are numerous:
· Virtual sports can be launched and maintained at a small fraction of the cost of live sports programs.
· Virtual sports can be played more safely, in smaller spaces, and in isolation, which may be necessary during periods of lockdown or quarantine. Thus, the sports show and competition can go on!
· Virtual sports can be much more accessible, exposing more potential players to the game, particularly those from groups who have been traditionally underserved.
The sport of cycling provides a prime example. Starting a cycling team at a high school or college can be a daunting task. A single race-quality bike can cost thousands of dollars upfront and hundreds of dollars annually to maintain. One bike typically supports only a single rider. Finding safe places for students to ride can be difficult. Practice times are limited by daylight and weather. The travel costs associated with getting to races can add up. New riders may be intimidated by cycling culture.
A single smart bike (with the capability to send real-time power, speed, and other parameters to a cycling gaming platform) may cost less than half of a race-quality bike. It requires little to no maintenance and can support multiple riders. Training and racing (against those across the globe) can happen nearly 24 hours per day, without concerns about weather, cars, potholes, or daylight, and the overall liability and risk of injury is much less. Riding in the privacy of their own homes or workout spaces, those new to the sport don’t have to worry about what to wear or how they look (and are more likely to give it try.) New riders can gain fitness and learn the nuances of the sport, better preparing them for training and competition on a real bike.
However, the virtual sports (r)evolution hasn’t been without bumps. The rapid growth in demand for virtual/indoor sports-related equipment fueled by the pandemic, along with supply chain issues, drove prices higher and made equipment hard to find. Eventually, supply pressures eased, and companies were able to restock their inventories and build their employee rosters to meet the demand.
But athletes all over the world were anxious to get back outside at the first glimpse of light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Some had suggested that “indoor fatigue” had set in, and the growth in demand for indoor exercise and training equipment, as well as related virtual sports gear, dropped as a result. Some companies were forced to restructure, resulting in layoffs and other tough financial decisions.
But the news isn’t all gloomy. Innovation continues in the world of virtual sports. Existing virtual sports technology is improving and advancing, and new virtual sports are entering the space. One of those sports is VR tennis.
What is VR Tennis?
“VR tennis” for the purposes of this discussion refers to a tennis video game simulation that requires similar timing, stroke technique, and skill as that of real tennis. The earliest example of, or at least an attempt at VR tennis, might be your father’s Wii tennis game that came as part of the Wii Sports pack (first released in 2006.)
While crude in many respects by today’s standards, the Wii motion controllers worked well. The player had to get the stroke timing just right. Perhaps more importantly, one could break a good sweat after just a couple of games. Nice job Nintendo! This was a solid start. But there were some key elements missing, and modern technology is now able to fill the gaps.
Specifically, in addition to incorporating the basic rules, flow, and strategy of tennis, a tennis simulation (to support tennis as a virtual sport) must provide a true, first-person and three-dimensional player point of view (POV.) Within this POV, ball and stroke physics and timing must be accurate and realistic. The supporting peripheral devices, such as a tennis racket handle attachment for controllers, must be weighted properly and provide reasonable ball impact feedback to the player.
Much of this is easier said than done from a technology standpoint, but one Austrian company in particular, VR Motion Learning, has made great strides in addressing the technical challenges with Tennis Esports platform (www.tennis-esports.com).
First started in 2019 as a research partnership with Tech. University Austria, the company has built an on-line community of more than 6000 users across 48 countries. Tennis Esports has over 7000 downloads and 1000 monthly users.
The company boasts “world class precision and technology make bridging physical and virtual tennis possible” and claims that its platform “feels like real tennis.” Additional features and specifications noted in the company’s brochure include:
· 3D printed racquet handle weighted and balanced with controller to feel like a tennis racquet
· Closest simulation to tennis physics from ball spins, speed to climate variables
· Real-time full-body motion capture for comparison with pro gamers or VR
· Hybrid profiles to merge physical and virtual tennis data and customization to one platform
Initially available only on much more expensive VR headsets and equipment, Tennis Esports now also runs on the Meta Oculus Quest 2 platform, effectively reducing the cost to get into VR tennis by 75% or more. (The base Quest 2 headset with controllers currently retails for approximately $300.)
The Tennis Esports platform currently offers several modes of play including live match play, tournament mode, as well as a host of training exercises and games to improve specific strokes, ball placement, and positioning. VR Motion Learning’s future plans and features for the tennis metaverse include:
• A professional VR tennis tour
• Technical diagnostics/AI coaching
• Cardio tennis and VR tennis master classes
• Customized avatars and playing environment
• Retail and in-app purchases
• Spectator-view match streaming
VR Motion Learning has positioned itself to be at the forefront of the development of VR tennis as a virtual sport, which will include showcasing Tennis Esports at the Paris virtual Olympic Games in 2024. Tennis Esports will offer hybrid events that follow the professional tour events next year as well. Youth and collegiate VR tennis initiatives are also in the works to support the company’s overall mission to complement tennis and encourage all forms of tennis participation.
With decreasing hardware costs, greater hardware availability/accessibility, and improved tennis simulation platforms, VR tennis is on track to be the next “big thing” in virtual sports. Much of the effort and movement to advance VR tennis as a sport/sub-sport of its own will likely happen over the next 12 to 24 months as the tennis world increasingly embraces VR tennis as a viable form of training and competition, as well as a way to grow the sport of tennis overall.
Dr. Mark Janas is an endurance sports competitor, sports enthusiast, and the founder of RevoRace.com, a virtual event and race platform. Janas teaches in the School of Business, Management, & Technology at Saint Augustine’s University (Raleigh, NC) where he also coaches the school’s cycling team and the leads the club and virtual sports programs. Janas received his doctorate in sports management from the United States Sports Academy and currently is a national faculty member. Janas also sits on the Advisory Board of the National Collegiate Virtual Sports Association (NCVSA.org).