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How virtual reality is transforming the sports industry

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Ben Dickson

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Ben Dickson is a software engineer and the founder of TechTalks.

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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.

Viewing sporting events in VR

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.

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.

Viewing the action from the player’s perspective

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.

Recreating the action in VR

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. In the meantime, there’s no shortage of companies trying to make headway in that direction. Beyond Sports is a VR startup that gathers player data from soccer matches in order to create 3D simulations of the game. Users wearing VR headsets are free to explore the game from anywhere in the stadium, including the perspective of players, fans or officials.

While the added degree of freedom is welcome, the fact that it’s using computer-generated graphics might not be appealing to a wide majority of the fans. However, the medium can be tremendously useful to sports teams, who can use it to replay and analyze the game from different perspectives. Beyond Sports has already partnered with soccer clubs Ajax and PSV in its native Holland, as well as the Royal Dutch Football Association and Utrecht University.

Another notable effort is that of Replay Technologies, the company known for its “freeD” 3D rendering technology. The technique involves the use of an array of ultra high-definition cameras positioned around the arena to create seamless, near-realistic 3D rendering of the action. While the technology hasn’t been used to capture full games, it has already been put to successful display at the NBA Slam Dunk Contest.

Dealing with the social shortcomings

One of the strongest arguments against the use of VR in consuming sports content is the fact that it takes away the social experience. Part of the pleasure of watching a game is having the company of family and friends. VR headsets, alas, only offer a solitary experience. The acquisition of Oculus by Facebook is partly attributed to fixing this shortcoming.

Tech startup Virtually Live aims to tackle the social element with its VR offering. The company’s technology is similar to that of Beyond Sports. It displays a virtual reconstruction of the stadium and players in near-real time, and fans are invited to step in and view the environment from any viewpoint they want.

However, Virtually Live adds social functionality to the mix. Fans appear as avatars and can interact with each other through VoIP. The firm wishes to thus make it more compelling for people to get together and watch games in VR.

AltSpaceVR is also betting big on the social aspect of VR and has placed it front and center in its VR platform. Although the technology is more focused on socializing activities such as chatting, playing games and watching movies, it also has features that make it fun to watch sporting events in VR.

Using VR to train teams

Professional teams have long used the study of films to examine their own performance or assess opponents. But with the vantage point being much different from what a player experiences during the game, the results are not always optimal.

Now, coaches and players train better by watching and experiencing plays again and again in virtual reality. This is the idea that, along with a $50,000 investment, got VR startup STRIVR Labs off the ground a year ago.

STRIVR creates VR training videos shot from the player’s-eye view of the action during practices. It then enables players to receive realistic, repetitive training by visualizing through VR headsets situations they will face on the field. For instance, quarterbacks can review the options and opportunities they missed by going through a play several times and reviewing each of their teammates’ positions.

This helps football teams prepare players for games without requiring their excessive presence on the field, where they risk being injured and exposed to summer heat. Teams can thus increase practice time without breaking the stringent rules that both the NFL and NCAA (college football) place on outdoor practice.

Five college football teams enrolled in STRIVR’s technology when Derek Belch, the company’s co-founder and a former Cardinal kicker, went on a tour last spring, introducing his technology to different college programs. In June 2015, the Dallas Cowboys signed, on as well. Today, STRIVR’s system has become part of the training program for 23 college and professional teams, including the San Francisco 49ers, the Minnesota Vikings as well as one team each from the NBA, WNBA and NHL. The company expects to announce a partnership with a Major League Baseball team soon.

The impact of technology on the future of professional sports

Virtual reality has yet to manifest its full potential in sports. For instance, it can make the recruiting process much easier by making college campuses seem much closer to recruits. Athletes can visit stadiums, locker rooms, weight rooms and practically every place and aspect of their future team in the immersive experience of VR — without leaving their homes and stepping on a plane.

We may also see new sports emerge that are totally based on VR and its sister technologies, augmented reality and mixed reality. E-sports have been around for a while, though many would argue that video games don’t count as sports. But with titles such as Pokémon Go and Racket: Nx, which are integrating video gaming elements and physical exercise, it may not be long before games that integrate AR/VR technologies become fully professional sports.

The opportunities and possibilities are yet to be discovered, and we can expect many pleasant surprises in the near future. It would be an overstatement to say that virtual reality will soon eclipse real-life experience, but there’s no doubt that it will transform the sports industry forever.

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