Would a true-blooded fan give up the excitement of watching an international cricket match from the stands to, instead, wear a virtual reality (VR) headset and watch it from the comfort of his home with beer and chips at hand? While this option seems unlikely in the short-term, the fact is VR and augmented reality (AR) are slowly finding their way to sports too.
Consider this case: ahead of the International Cricket Council Champions Trophy that ended on 18 June, the sport’s governing body had already announced Intel Corporation as its innovation partner for the tournament in England. Intel, in a statement, said it would “deploy a range of technology… to revolutionize how athletes train, coaches teach, scouts evaluate talent and fans enjoy sports."
This could be dismissed as a typical marketing campaign ahead of a major sporting event, yet there is an increasing push towards enhancing broadcast experience and training methods using AR and VR—buzzwords that have been gaining momentum almost 50 years since American scientist Ivan Sutherland first showcased VR using a headset.
While VR allows users to experience a place without physically being there, AR enables them to interact with digital information in their own environment.
It’s Show time, folks
Last year, when Pokémon Go had people running into walls while chasing imaginary beings using AR, it was not real sport but it did offer a glimpse of possibilities that are now taking shape in the world of sport. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2017, Intel showcased a 3D replay of a football match between Spanish giants Read Madrid and Barcelona, generated using 36 cameras placed around Camp Nou, according to an article in the Sports Illustrated.
During the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro last year, broadcasters BBC in the UK and NBC in the US provided access to live and on-demand VR coverage—since it is in experimental stages, the events were not streamed until the following day. Before that, Leicester City’s unexpected triumph in the English Premier League football was put together for broadcaster Sky Sports by Surround Vision, a UK VR company, which placed viewers in the middle of a ticker-tape parade.
In India last October, fans of the Kabaddi World Cup were able to switch between different cameras in a 360° experience—on mobile devices, tablets and through VR headset devices—through the local digital broadcaster Hotstar.
Cricket fans are already familiar with it on television in the use of the basic Wagon Wheel.
A Spanish company, FirstV1sion, offered player perspective video feeds during a basketball match using its “smart wearables"—a garment embedded with a high definition camera, a microphone and sensors that monitor player health stats. Similarly, another VR start-up, Beyond Sports, takes data from football matches to create 3D simulations of the game—users can explore the game from anywhere in the stadium, TechCrunch reported in September.
The American National Basketball Association (NBA) is one of the pioneers in adopting VR. Broadcasting start-up NextVR helped the association produce one game a week last season in VR, making NBA the first professional sports league to do that.
In 2016, Intel installed a 360° replay technology at Levi’s stadium—which is home to the 49ers American football team—to create a 3D model of each home game, reported the Sports Illustrated in January. The problem, the article added, was that the system generated 2 TB (terabytes) data per minute, more than all the data a single person might generate over five years, highlighting one of the problems.
A 360° view
In an article on the website espncricinfo.com in May, the head coach of the Indian Premier League team Delhi Daredevils, Paddy Upton, wrote about how cricket would change by 2027. “We will find better ways to prepare the next batsman in," he wrote. “Options will include virtual reality headsets that enable them to ‘face up’ to opposition bowlers, and a net near the dugout where players can hit balls while waiting to bat."
The technology’s use in other sports abroad is also gaining traction. According to a report on Tech.Co, the Stanford Cardinal football team in California uses VR to analyse plays during breaks.
Another company, STRIVR Labs, creates VR training videos shot from the player’s-eye view of action during practices. It, then, enables players to receive realistic, repetitive training by visualizing through VR headsets—situations they will face on the field, reported TechCrunch.
A Dartmouth-led research team recreated parts of popular rock climbing routes using 3D modelling and digital fabrication, CNN reported earlier in May. The researchers believe recreating outdoor rock climbing routes will improve indoor training for beginners and experts.
AR-VR can help correct your style of running “while you are running", according to Norrie Williamson, a former international athlete, tri-athlete and now coach. If you are able to adjust your running style, you can gauge the impact difference between one foot and the other foot, and you don’t need a coach all the time to improve your running, he added.
Williamson, who was in Mumbai recently for a workshop organized by YouTooCanRun Sports Management, took the example of Nike’s invitation to athletes for running a marathon under two hours. He said for long-distance runners to get faster, they would have to improve their style of running and make it more energy-efficient, which can be aided by AR-VR.
“Running style is important as much in marathon as in sprinting. We remember Carl Lewis’s hands that scythed through the air like knives and Flo-Jo (Florence Griffith Joyner) in a body suit—it was all about aerodynamics. That approach (of improving technique) in marathons will make a difference," added Williamson.
There is another reason why tech experimentation is in such advanced stages in some US sports. American football lends itself to AR because the players already wear visors. Chris Kluwe, a former football punter and writer, said in a TED Talk that players would be able to have real-time data streamed to their visors in a Google Glass-like overlay. So they would be able to see positions of other players, speed of the ball, time left in the match, etc.
Juniper Research forecasts that the VR hardware market will grow from $5 billion in 2016 to $50 billion in 2021. Google has invested $542 million in Magic Leap—an AR company. When Facebook paid $2 billion to buy Oculus Rift—a start-up that had developed a VR headset for gaming—its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said, “Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face to face—just by putting on goggles in your home."
But will viewers bite?
The fact is that 360° cameras are being used to stream sporting events in VR to help sports fans—with a VR headset and an app—to experience being in the stadium, looking around, and soaking in the sights and sounds. Moreover, with increasing distances, cumbersome travelling, jostling for space, and humid weather conditions in countries like India, it is sometimes nicer to be home than in a sweaty stadium. Technologies such as AR and VR also enable athletes to “visit" stadiums, locker rooms and grounds for an immersive, conditioning experience—without leaving their home.
Nevertheless, the reason why sports fans spend thousands of rupees and many hours in queues in stadiums is because they want that immersive experience that’s unique to sport. The combined anticipation of a new batsman walking in, the hush when a wicket falls and the roar of a boundary, the shared bonhomie of friends—these will be missing from the VR experience which is more solitary in nature.
Broadcasters, however, are continuing to invest in these technologies and believe they can monetize this too. Selling virtual tickets, for instance, would add to revenue since all of a league’s or a team’s fans cannot fit into a stadium.
“Ultimately, fans will jump on board if they feel there is compelling, immersive content to experience—which is why committing to a schedule of games with NextVR was a critical step in the process," said Jeff Marsilio, NBA vice-president, global media distribution, in an email.
He added that fan feedback to their live NBA games in virtual reality has been overwhelmingly positive. In October 2015, NBA streamed a game in Mumbai with VR headsets to a select bunch of people.
“In sports, real use case is (more) for spectators," said Rahul Dutta, founder and managing director of Trimensions Digital Solutions Pvt. Ltd, a Delhi-based company. “There is some stuff in VR that blew my mind—you can get strapped on a wing suit and jump off a mountain, for example. With Jio and Airtel etc. taking off, this would be the focus on mobiles and apps."
But he said that the obstacles in India are high because the technology has to be adopted by a base number of people for it to be sustainable. Further, equipment is expensive and the technology is evolving so fast that it renders a lot of existing stuff obsolete quickly, said Dutta, who has worked in the field for over a decade.