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Can VR and AR work in Live sport?

Broadcasters spend a lot money to get the rights to show live sport, so the pressure is on them to ensure that they’re delivering the best possible service for paying subscribers to keep them at home glued to the screen rather than watching in a bar or (for the traditionalists) the stadium. This often means incorporating the latest technology and digital developments, such as Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, but are they ever more than short-lived fads?

What do VR and AR have to offer?

The latest trend being utilised in America is adding the option for virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) during live sports broadcasts. It’s been available in some form since last year when it was used for the 2016 Daytona 500 race by Fox Sports in conjunction with NextVR. Fans with the right equipment (more on that later) could view the event in 3D from three different perspectives (though it wasn’t possible to choose the view); the finish line, the infield or the pit, with live graphics offering the latest stats and placings, thereby creating an entirely new fan experience.

Fox Sports also introduced AR to its NFL coverage last year, with graphics appearing in 3D on the field to offer key stats during the game. This was an innovative addition, and as Michael Davies, senior vice president of field and technical operations, admitted, it was introduced to incorporate stats without affecting the view of the game itself. “In the past, when you needed to throw up a graphic, it would cover up and almost take you away from the action,” Davies explained. “This allows us to stay in the field of play and keep the audience connected to the game and still get the information up.”

Another significant example of such technology comes from Major League Baseball, which started to offer a VR Game of the Week in June this year, giving fans the chance to choose from up to four VR camera angles. Meanwhile, the NBA had a VR season pass for the 2016-17 season, again with NextVR as partners, having previously offered one game viewable in 360 degree video in 2015. This time round, they offered up to seven cameras around the court, giving fans the chance to feel like they’re there.

What are the downsides to using VR and AR in tandem with live sport?

As with any exciting new technological offering, there are always stumbling blocks, and with VR and AR, it’s that you need the right equipment to watch it. For the Daytona 500 and the MLB games, that meant a Samsung Gear VR, plus compatible smartphone and the Intel True VR app. Even for events that offer a wider range of viewing options, there’s still a need to spend the money to get them at a time when the number of life-enhancing functions for VR are relatively low.

Beyond the cost, there’s the reality of watching a live sporting event with a headset on, which is an immersive experience, but not necessarily what everyone would choose for an entire baseball game or NASCAR race, both of which last over 3 hours on average. Aside from the potential discomfort and disorientation, using VR remains an antisocial activity, making it difficult to share the experience with friends, which is a core aspect of watching sports.

Of the events already broadcast, the NBA’s VR team found that the average viewing length of a session on their systems was 7 or 8 minutes for the first game shown. By week 25 it was up to 45 minutes as fans started to get used to the technology and what it could do, but this is still less than half of the actual average length of a game. So that suggests that fans are still dipping in and out of the VR functionality, rather than seeing it as the best way to enjoy the action throughout.

The quick death of 3D sports

For learnings about the future of VR in live sports, you perhaps need to look only as far back as the rise of 3D TVs a few years ago. Broadcasters like Sky jumped wholeheartedly into the three-dimensional world, and sport was one of the few areas (along with movies) where they could actually offer 3D action on a regular basis, so Premier League games were made available via this new technology.

However, you needed a 3D television with glasses to take advantage, and while the glasses were less cumbersome and socially intrusive than a VR set, the idea of getting friends around to watch a game and all putting on 3D glasses never really took off. For some people watching 3D TV caused headaches, eyestrain and even seizures, and the resultant press did little to help its popularity.

By September 2014, Sky had quietly dropped 3D Premier League games from its schedule and by the next summer, the only 3D content available was on-demand movies. ESPN had stopped broadcasting 3D sports by 2013 and in January of this year the only two remaining manufacturers of 3D television sets announced that they were ceasing production of them, meaning the best way to watch sports in 3D remains actually going to watch them in person.

What does the future hold for VR sports?

VR and AR companies should look at the lessons from 3D sport and learn from them, because while 3D struggled to gain traction, these technologies need not. As with almost all key digital technologies, it’s about convenience, ease and meeting the consumer in the moments that matter most to them with something genuinely useful. By using VR and AR for stats, TV networks are doing this and therefore look set to rise to the challenge of making the technology more than just a fad.

What do you think of VR and AR in televised sport? Have you ever watched a match using the technologies? Get in touch @mporiumgroup.

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