What is the place of virtual reality in sports?

From the invention of the first head-mounted display almost fifty years ago to the virtual reality (VR) pods that populated gaming arcades in the 1990s, VR technology has been around in some shape or form for decades. It has, however, failed repeatedly to achieve mainstream adoption. Nevertheless, there has recently been renewed interest in VR especially following Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus in 2014. Could VR be a game-changer for sports? Possibly, but a number of consumers and commentators remain sceptical.

A fresh fan experience

The principal appeal of VR lies in its potential to deliver an immersive experience. This is particularly relevant to sports, where VR can give fans a front-row experience from the comfort of their homes. This potential was leveraged by NBC, in collaboration with Intel and the Olympic Broadcast Services, who broadcasted 30 Olympic events in VR during the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games. No need to travel, no need to pay excessive amounts for tickets and no need to wrap up warm.

A development tool 

VR is also increasing in popularity as a tool to improve sporting performance. In 2017, professional golfer Rickie Fowler teamed up with Success Series to offer VR golf lessons. Such initiatives show that there is scope for VR to be more than a new way for fans to enjoy existing content. Athletes and teams can also use the technology to engage with their supporters, create new experiences and even assist with training development.

UK-based company Mi Hiepa has developed a platform that allows players to input existing match data to recreate in-game situations. The platform is proving popular, with several Premier League clubs already using it. A player can re-enter a game by wearing a headset and two small devices attached to their boots and shin pads. This technology helps players to develop their skills and can help injured athletes in recovery by allowing them to train while limiting the risk of contact. 

Similar technologies are already widespread in the USA where over 23 college and professional teams, including the United States men's national soccer team and several National Football League franchises, incorporate comparable enhanced training solutions from VR start-up STRIVR Labs into their training routines. 

Identifying the best talent

This technology can also assist sports clubs when scouting emerging talent. Platforms like Mi Hiepa’s can collect vast amounts of player data, including information about body movement, reaction time and general performance during drills and training. Given the price tag attached to football player transfers, for example, perhaps clubs can leverage this data to make better personnel and commercial decisions going forward.

Bridging the gap between traditional athletes and gamers 

Another exciting possibility is that the rise of VR could lead to the emergence of new sports. Games such as Racket: Nx combine video gaming elements and physical activity, potentially bridging the gap between traditional athletes and gamers. This is particularly exciting – and not just for fans - with eSports expected to generate a global revenue of $906 million and audiences expected to surpass 380 million fans in 2018.

… or not quite there yet? 

For all of the heightened interest around VR, many are still unconvinced. Particularly, critics comment that current VR technology does not match the lofty promise of a fully immersive visual experience. At PyeongChang, some viewers complained that the resolution reduced athletes to blink-or-you'll-miss-them blurs and the overall image quality was poor compared to a regular broadcast. This is due to current technological limitations, but also, in part, because broadcasters have yet to figure out how best to film and showcase compelling VR content to their audiences. Perhaps these issues will begin to fade away once content creators grow more familiar with VR broadcasting. The onset of 5G and other related networking innovations may also help improve the quality of the experience for viewers.

The bulky hardware also diminishes the social aspects of sports. Whether you are watching a game of football at the pub or soaking up the atmosphere at a live game, sports are traditionally enjoyed in the company of others. The best way to overcome this shortcoming is to make watching sports in VR more compelling. Virtually Live’s technology has sought to achieve this by enabling fans to view a sporting event in near real-time from any perspective and to interact with other fans as avatars. Additionally, some broadcasters are using augmented reality technology to display real-time statistics and additional content directly onto the screen, while others have adopted the use of wearable technology to allow supporters to hear the athletes or see the game from their point-of-view. These innovations, when combined with VR technology, could open the door to a number of innovative broadcasting propositions in the coming years. However, we are not quite there yet.

Authors

Alexandre Naud