After a failed stint in the 1990s, virtual reality made its reappearance last year with headsets such as Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard and Oculus Rift. But this time, it’s here to stay and, in less than a year, it’s already drawn attention and investment from venture capitalists and tech giants such as Facebook, and has made huge impact across a great many industries, including sports.
Sports is one of the domains where technology is being put to use in the most effective and aggressive way. We’ve already become used to the presence of augmented reality (AR) in sports. Think about watching football without the projected first-down line or hockey without puck tracking.
Now, with the sudden leap that VR has taken recently, the sport experience is being amplified and becoming more immersive in nearly every possible field, ranging from consuming content to training and recruiting athletes.
Here’s how VR is revolutionizing sports, starting with the fan experience.
Something that is being seen a lot lately is the use of 360-degree cameras to capture and stream sporting events in virtual reality. This is a boon to all those sports fans who can’t afford the luxury of flying half the world in order to see their favorite teams and athletes perform.
In most cases, a VR headset and an app is all you’ll need to be taken to the stadium to look around for yourself as the action unfolds, all without leaving the comfort of your home. This is the most realistic experience you get from viewing a sporting event without actually attending in person.
The Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games kicked off with the promise of solid VR coverage by broadcasting networks such as NBC and BBC — a first in Olympics broadcasting — viewable with VR headsets through their respective apps. VR broadcasting still being in its experimental stages, the only catch was that, but for a few exceptions, the events weren’t streamed until the day after they took place. Hopefully, the next Olympiad will see more live VR streaming.
The big leagues have also caught on to the potential value of the medium, and have been dabbling in it for a while by making considerable investments to bring the new experience to their fans.
NextVR is a VR broadcasting startup that is betting big on covering professional sports and changing the fan experience. The firm has already given VR coverage to some of the main sports events, such as the 2015 NBA opening season game between the Golden State Warriors and the New Orleans Pelicans last fall, and NCAA’s men’s basketball semi-finals and championship games.
The NBA has made the most progress in adopting VR, but other leagues are not far behind, and NextVR has already covered three mid-season NFL games plus the Super Bowl, the live-stream broadcast of the International Champions Cup (ICC) soccer games, the VR capture of a NASCAR race and a couple of NHL games.
You can expect much to change in the coming months and years, including interactivity, stats and additional info added to the display, as well as on-player camera feeds enabling you to view the action from the eyes of your favorite athlete.
We’ve already seen progress made in this field. Last year, Spanish startup FirstV1sion used its smart wearables to offer player perspective video feeds at several sporting events, including a Euroleague basketball match. The garment contains an embedded HD camera and a microphone, plus additional sensors that monitor player health stats.
While a fun concept, player-perspective VR cameras might not offer the best experience, creating dizzying effects when viewed with VR headsets.
For the moment, VR broadcast of sporting events is limited. While the 360-degree video feed allows you to move your head and look around, your point of view remains rooted in the spot, hence, some challenge it as being true VR at all.
Experts concur that we’re still some 10 years away before we can see true VR with proper video.