Can VR & AR Help Sport Teams & Consumers Reach their Goals?

It’s not hard to imagine how VR and AR could enhance the experience of people watching sports from their living room couches or even from within the stadium itself. Put a headset on and be transported to the field and feel like you’re right in the middle of the action. With AR, it could be more of a social experience – a group of friends using their phones to add layers to their experience. Right now, as with any VR and AR discussion, the headsets and the content are not yet at the top of their game. We all know that practice makes perfect and that sport is definitely one of the sectors in which money can be made, meaning it could be one of the first, alongside other entertainment, to really take off in the consumer market for VR and AR. Some say that sport will be the driving force in getting everyday people interested in immersive experiences, especially when they are social ones.

Back in 2015 (and many years before, after  and to come), thanks partially to a Time Magazine cover and story, there were predictions and proclamations that VR could really become a major consumer product. Best of all, there were a lot of memes going around of the boy on the cover in every sport and entertainment pose (and more…).

And this funny one from this article.

Sport teams and organizations and news and entertainment platforms are clearly taking VR and AR more seriously these days. Charlie Fink, a Forbes writer focused on VR and AR trends and tech who you can follow via various forms of Fink Metaverse, sees investments in sport tech going up and sport as a market leader in the field. In a recent article in The Independent, Fink said that AR, for example, will make sport matches come to life on tables at pubs, allowing “spectators” to gather around with their friends, pulling up players and their stats.

PCR, which covers the Computing sector and  published an AR/VR special in early March, writes that watching sports from the comfort of your home yet with the feel of a stadium will become more common as the quality continues to improve. PCR says that NextVR is one of the companies that’s working hard on transporting fans to arenas via quality headsets and experiences.

In the below video, you can get an idea of what content NextVR offers.

Or – have a look at this guy’s visual description and review, in which you can also see eveything you will need to actually watch NextVR sports in an immersive way. I just wonder if NextVR paid this guy to make his video as at one point he says, “Who needs to pay 2 grand to sit court side.” You can hear how happy he is as he says it so either he truly loves it or he’s earning 2 grand for doing the video :-).

For transparency purposes, I should let you know that I am earning nothing for this article (other than a master degree, maybe) and that I tried out NextVR for several hours this week. Though after 5 minutes the foam on the mixed reality headset had me sweating as if I were actually doing heavy sports, I have to admit that I was truly drawn in to the semi-immersive experience of watching everything from soccer to football to big-wheeled trucks in mud to entertaining wrestling – from the corner of the boxing ring. Tennis, I’m sorry to say, put me straight to sleep. I know very little about sports but could still really get into almost everything I was watching. It felt different from watching sports on TV. The ever-so-slight immersion thanks to 360° cameras and / or stereoscopic ones gave the experience more depth. I felt much closer to the players and to the spectators. I enjoyed having a bird’s eye view of hard-working, impressive muscles and amazingly weird bodies. I loved seeing the face of the person who scored close up right after it happened. It also felt very flat at times, but the “experience” was enough to make me want more.

It needs to be said, time and time again, that 360° is not VR and VR is not 360°. With that said, they get mixed together so frequently that it’s hard to differentiate them. The most basic explanation is that 360° allows for pretty passive experiences whereas VR should permit more interactive ones, such as teleportation, etc… VR experiences, for the moment, are more game-like in terms of look and feel. 360° experiences are based on video being filmed with a 360° camera. There are also stereoscopic experiences that can be mistaken for VR or 360°. Again – basically – those are filmed with two cameras and create a feeling of depth – like a more 3D environment. VR uses some of the same cameras and angles but there is far more programming and design involved, which is also why it’s more expensive. To sum it up, a lot of content that’s called VR is in fact just 360° or made with 2 cameras (or more). Once you try real VR, with hand controls and haptics, you start to understand the difference and the limits of 360° videos.

Below are a few of the best 360° degree sport videos I tried this week. These ones I watched with various high-tech and high-quality regular and mobile headsets – simply because they make the experience have more depth and therefore immersion thanks to the lenses and the integrated sound. Honestly, with sport, and probably most immersive experiences, the sound quality makes all the difference. When the sound was good, I was fully engaged, even just with regular earbuds. Good sound could really give you “the-crowd-went-wild” feeling. Sometimes I even felt euphoric. At other times, like with downhill skating, I felt excited, scared and a little dizzy. Put a headset on (cardboard with earbuds will be fine but not fabulous) and take a fast ride down a steep hill (with no breaks)!

This NFL one can’t be embedded here, but if you can, have a look at it in a headset with headphones. It’s a long one but it had my attention to the very end, and I’m not even really interested in football! The storytelling and visuals are good and the quality is great. Towards the end, the team is in a room together analyzing their plays that week. I seriously felt, at that point, that I was right there in the room with them. It was unreal. Or was it too real? Hard to say.

There are so many great ones, but have a look at this surfing one if you’ve ever wanted to ride the waves. I felt thankful that these 2 surfer dudes were kind enough to take me along with them. I’m pretty sure I’ll never go surfing, so for me, this immersive stuff is a great and fun – and a safe and shark-less alternative!

VR Focus, a site all about VR, AR and MR, has a weekly overview of sport news related to tech. This week’s highlights include a baseball team that wants to give its fans the opportunity to know what it feels like to be on the field up at bat – via VR. They are also looking into developing an AR game that allows kids to find player cards throughout the stadium. In other news, Fox Sports is going to use AR to enhance their live studio coverage by superimposing computer-generated images within the broadcast. You can imagine sport players and stats popping up larger than life in the studio next to excited sportscasters. VR Focus concludes this week with news that the American Football arcade experience that puts you in the shoes of a quarterback will be coming soon to PlayStation VR.

Speaking of getting inside the shoes of athletes, VR is also being used for practice and training by sport teams. A recent report about an NBA basketball player who had a serious injury indicates that his team is hoping practicing his shots in a VR environment will help him get his shot back to what it was. According to the February article in the Philly Voice, the Philadelphia 76ers is one of a small group of  NBA teams that wants to use VR not only for training but also to help get a player’s confidence level back up and minimize the stress of having all eyes on the player as he practices. VR can create a more private practice environment and help a team member to visualize his plays with less pressure and fear of failure. That is the hope, anyway, according to the sources in the article.

The 2018 Winter Olympics also featured some VR sport stories. Not only was some of it shown in VR thanks to a collaboration between the NBC network and Intel, but VR was also used by the US ski team to visualize the ski course before actually ever skiing on it. Working with the company STRIVR and 360° degree cameras, one of the coaches had access to the slopes and could film the course numerous times. The footage was then made into a sort of training / simulation VR expereince. According to this Washington Post article, the skiers could use the technology to memorize the route and better ready themselves for the competition.

For more information, check out this news report.

Here’s another training-with-VR success story via ESPN. It’s about “how more than 2,500 virtual reality reps helped transform” NFL football player Case Keenum’s game. The company STRIVR also worked with Keenum on his training and had this to say about it, which gives you yet another glance at the potential of training in VR:

“And that also begs the question…who is the next Case Keenum? Who is taking their game to the next level with 2,647 extra moments of practice? Another athlete? A front-line worker at a large QSR chain? A doctor, nurse, or surgeon? The big exec needing to give a keynote address? The operations lead in a manufacturing facility? Answer: all of them.”

Last but not least, here’s a look at an upcoming VR game from Black Box VR that hopes to help you forget that you are lifting real weights. It sounds dangerous to me but perhaps less so for athletes and fitness folks who know what they are doing. In August, the same company plans to open up a full VR Gym in San Francisco. Have a look at the video to find out more.

If that video didn’t convince you, perhaps this one will (or really won’t)!

All this sport talk is exhausting me! There’s a lot more to be said on VR/AR/MR in sport – so if you’re in the sport field or just interested in being transported to a sport field to watch a match – make sure to keep your eye on the ball for all the new and upcoming trends!

by Sarah Markewich – SIVAR project intern spring 2018