As a $1.5 trillion global industry, sports are big business. From playing on the field to live streaming a game to a mobile device, it’s no surprise that sports have always been quick to embrace new technologies from radio to television, and now virtual reality.
VR has taken hold of the public imagination, and it’s not difficult to see the potential applications in sports. Virtual reality’s ability to essentially transport the user to another place makes it ideal for training, viewing games, and even in selling concessions. Legions of fans hungry to enrich the enjoyment of their passion means that the integration of VR into sports has attracted some of the finest minds and greatest enterprises in tech.
The interation of virtual reality into sports is no longer a question of if, rather a question of when. In the near future, expect to see aspects of virtual reality gradually transforming the way you enjoy your favorite games. Here are some of the most interesting things that are happening in the space today.
VR has seen use in training surgeons, fighter pilots, and construction workers. Today, it is also used to push our professional athletes to the furthest heights of excellence. Virtual reality firm EON Sports specializes in creating virtual training environments for athletes. Using both commercially available and custom-designed head-mounted displays, Eon places athletes on the field virtually.
By leveraging the power of a computer simulation, Eon’s solution presents a unique opportunity for athletes to practice against their actual opponents. Eon programs their simulations with data on opposing teams’ style and performance, custom-building a training regimen for the needs of each athlete. Users stand in front of a green screen and hold physical equipment, such as a baseball bat, to interact with the simulation. The green screen projects the user’s view into the real world, so that coaches and other personnel can follow along. Eon’s professional training programs are in use by teams of the NFL, SEC, and more. In addition, the firm also offers home software for use by the public. Software is available for purchase from Eon’s online store, along with SIDEKIQ, their branded mobile-based head-mounted display.
The existence of competitors such as StriVR point to the viability of virtual reality training in professional sports, with advantages including increased safety and better data collection. Avoiding impacts and injuries during training means healthier, safer athletes who are in top fighting form when game time comes. Simultaneously, confining the action to a computer simulation means that every action and reaction can be shared by coaches and specialists, as well as recorded for later analysis.
Sports viewers are used to seeing a great deal of flash and sizzle in broadcasts, as epitomized by the NFL’s constant adoption of bleeding-edge technology. In the case of virtual reality, though, the affordable cost and widespread availability means that the latest tech isn’t just limited to multi-billion dollar organizations like the NFL.
Startup firm Virtually Live is committed to “Expanding the Fan Experience.” The company takes an unusual approach to bringing fans into the game. Rather than planting 360° cameras on the field, Virtually Live instead places static cameras around the stadium, covering the action from every angle. Their software then creates a computer-generated virtual environment and streams it to viewers, who can move freely through the broadcast using their commercially available head-mounted displays.
The sports match is recreated using CGI graphics, but the action is completely real. Virtually Live is in the startup phase and has not yet found widespread adoption in the United States, but the amount of press and media coverage the firm has received is promising. As a test, the company live streamed the FIA Formula E Championship, a car racing series exclusively raced by electric cars.
Virtual reality firm NextVR was an early adopter, allowing home viewers to use their Oculus Rift or Samsung Gear VR head-mounted displays to virtually attend matches since 2009. Early in 2016, the firm inked a 5-year deal with Fox Sports to live stream events from college basketball to NASCAR races. The idea is a natural fit, allowing fans to gain a better view of the action than is even possible from the stadium seats.
NextVR takes a more traditional approach to sports broadcasting than Virtually Live. The firm has developed suite of patents covering highly sophisticated 360° cameras, allowing them to capture a sporting event in high definition 3D, and from all angles. Viewers can use their home equipment to virtually attend the match, turning their heads and viewing any part of the action.
Although not as quite as full-featured as Virtually Live’s free-wheeling, free-moving experience, NextVR has its advantages. Providing a live HD feed, rather than a computer generated simulation, has obvious appeal over Virtually Live’s “video game” approach. Watching a game on NextVR is more akin to a traditional broadcast than Virtually Live, which at times seems so dissociated from the actual game that some drama is lost.
Both solutions are receiving a great deal of press coverage, although NextVR at the time of this writing has landed far more actual broadcast contracts. The race between them should be fascinating to watch, and the competition can only be good for the fans.
It’s not hard to imagine additional applications for virtual reality in the sports world. Sports already encompasses a great many disciplines and technologies, and VR has the ability to change all of them.
Equipment and apparel designers can benefit from highly advanced simulations, letting them spot design flaws or improvements in their products even before they are prototyped. These simulations could be distributed to professional athletes and coaches for evaluation and feedback at a fraction of the cost of shipping out physical goods.
By recording a match and then replaying it in VR, judging and referee errors could become a thing of the past. The kind of disputes over inches and milliseconds that occur regularly in sports from racing to football could be resolved if only the ref could replay the moment from another angle.
As the technology continues to take hold in the public eye, it is likely that we will see more and more applications in the sports world. In many ways, the two industries create a perfect storm. Sports professionals are always hungry for new and dramatic tech to incorporate into their enterprise. At the same time, virtual reality is a tech hungry for new implementations and applications to showcase its possibilities.