FutureSPORT: Virtual Reality, Immersive Viewing Invite Fans Inside the Game

With a little over three months to go before the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, SVG’s FutureSPORT on Tuesday targeted at least one technology that attendees are sure to see on the show floor: virtual reality. And, while virtual reality is certainly having a moment in the videogame world, the sports world appears full of untapped potential.

At FutureSPORT, however, it was necessary to first determine what the phrase virtual reality actually means, particularly for the sports industry.

“Everybody has their own terminology for virtual reality,” says Lance Loesberg, founder/CEO, BigLook360, which delivers dynamic, immersive 360° video experiences. “Some people think 3D is virtual reality. It could be an animation form, a video form, or a combination thereof, so it’s important to identify exactly what the application is that we deliver to consumers. … In our case, we’re trying to deliver the experience of what it would actually be like to sit in the front row at an NBA game or in the dugout of a baseball game or at a concert on the stage, [to] give [viewers] that experience of what, exactly, it could be like if [they] were really there.”

SVG's Ken Kerschbaumer moderates a panel discussion on virtual reality: (seated, from left): Andre Lorenceau, Lance Loesberg, Tom Impallomeni, and Jerry Steinberg.

SVG’s Ken Kerschbaumer moderates a panel discussion on virtual reality: (seated, from left): Andre Lorenceau, Lance Loesberg, Tom Impallomeni, and Jerry Steinberg.

Although 3D animation is often the basis for virtual reality in videogames, it doesn’t factor into Loesberg’s example. After all, a fan surrounded by computerized avatars wouldn’t really feel as if he or she were actually sitting in an MLB dugout.

“Every aspect [of virtual reality] has got its strength and weaknesses,” says Andre Lorenceau, CEO, LiveLike, whose virtual-reality sports platform takes fans into the stadium. “Real video obviously gives you the most immersion, whereas a completely virtual environment allows you to do a lot more stuff: advertising is a lot easier, multiplayer functionality is a lot easier.”

The panelists interchanged the phrase virtual reality with immersive viewing experience, which fans have become accustomed to in the past few years. Jerry Steinberg, an industry consultant who has spent years honing “immersive-viewing” technologies for Fox Sports, recounted the first time a camera was placed on a catcher and the viewer invited inside the meeting on the mound.

“What’s really important [in creating that experience] is, you’ve gotta think like a fan,” says Steinberg. “You’ve gotta put yourself in the living room with people that watch sports all day long. Where would they want to go that they haven’t been allowed to go? Where do they want to be? What would they want to see that they haven’t been able to see? I think that requires really thinking like a fan.”

However, to be truly immersed in the experience takes more than a unique vantage point, which is where virtual-reality “goggles” like Oculus Rift (which must be tethered to a computer) and the Samsung Gear VR (which operates using a Samsung mobile device) factor in. The panelists predicted that technologies like these will dominate CES 2016, and the sports industry should take note.

“Sports is the last thing that’s driving cable television, and it naturally lends itself to virtual reality,” says Lorenceau. “There’s a very big desire for people to go to the stadium and to feel like they’re actually there. We pay… a very large amount of our income to go to games, and our next best thing is television, [but] television is so far away from the stadium experience. Virtual reality could be an in-between that stadium experience and that TV experience, richer than TV but easier than the stadium. And that’s a huge opportunity.”

Of course, virtual reality and watching a sports event unfold on television are not the same thing, and content providers need to be cognizant of things like where the audio originates in relation to a fan’s head; where the director of the content can sit if he or she is using a 360-degree camera; whether the experience can be monetized through sponsorship, subscription, or pay-per-view; and how to provide a high enough resolution that the fan truly feels lost in the experience.

“It’s not just about giving the view from a particular seat,” says Tom Impallomeni, CEO, Virtually Live, whose platform enables fans to feel like they’re at the game. “It’s about the atmosphere, it’s about the stadium moments. As the market matures and we learn more about what fans are really interested in, that’s exciting.”

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