How VR will change how we watch sport

We talk to the virtual reality companies working on putting you pitch-side
How VR could change watching sport

Things go wrong after the first couple of punches. It's the second round of the Men's Light Fly boxing at the Rio Olympics and China's Lu Bin has Kenya's Peter Mungai Warui on the ropes. Bin is preparing to let rip when both men freeze and, in the centre of the screen, the familiar spinning wheel indicator appears.

With both boxers showing no sign of moving, I pan to the left to take in the crowd, but it's too dark to make anyone out. Apart from a few ringside officials – who too have frozen like someone's pressed pause – I'm alone, and unable to move, in a dark, weirdly still arena.

This is BBC Sport 360, an experimental mobile app that lets you experience live action and highlights from the Rio Olympics in 360 degrees. As you can tell, it has its issues. But it's an important first step to making sports viewing more immersive. The technology is moving fast; in a few years you'll be able to pick your seat in the stadium, chat to your friend next to you and watch the match from all angles, all without leaving your front room. And it all starts this football season…

Premier League VR

This September, Sky will launch its first virtual reality app. The company hasn't confirmed exactly what content will be available, though last season it experimented with broadcasting live Premier League matches in VR to a handful of fans.

The app will roll out to all platforms, including mobile apps for cheaper Google Cardboard headsets and the 'full-fat' VR headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. So it won't only be accessible to those willing to spend thousands of pounds.

Speaking to Wareable, Richard Nockles, creative director of Sky VR Studios, hints at what we can expect. Stories are the order of the day, rather than a simple 'wow' experience; he reckons that VR has much more impact when there's a narrative to follow.

"It almost takes on a documentary feel. Then we get to the big day and we're right there in the action with them"

"We'll be following athletes as they prepare for their big events," he says. "It almost takes on a documentary feel. Then we get to the big day and we're right there in the action with them."

Wareable was invited to Sky HQ to try the app, and we were impressed with what we saw. Viewed on a Samsung Gear VR, it did a very good job of rendering a boxing arena with only minimal glitches. You could almost feel the sweat spray off David Haye. Similarly, the app let us stand right there on the pitch with Leicester City during last season's Premier League victory celebrations. Sadly, it's the closest we'll ever get to celebrating the real thing.

Step into the player's boots

But hang on. Both the BBC and Sky's apps use 360-degree videos, and while they let you move your head to look around, your point of view remains rooted to the spot; you can't head down to the pitch, or kick back in the VIP area. Hence they're not 'true' VR. ("360 video isn't VR" is a popular refrain in the VR industry. So much so, we've seen someone wearing a t-shirt bearing the slogan.) Thankfully, there's no shortage of companies making headway in this area.

Beyond Sports uses player data from football matches to create simulations of the game. Fans watching using mobile VR or an Oculus Rift headset are then free to explore anywhere in the stadium, or see the game from any player's, fan's or official's viewpoint. It uses computer-generated graphics, which have come on a long way since the company was founded just before the Brazil World Cup in 2014.

"At first it was just stick men running around," Sander J. Schouten, Beyond Sports' director of business, tells Wareable. "But the important thing was, the co-ordinates were accurate, and so we knew which way the players were facing. And that's all we needed to give a view from the player's perspective."

The footage is able to be broadcast with a delay of just 0.01 seconds, which isn't noticeable to the human eye. And it has uses beyond just the fans. Beyond Sports offers a pro service that lets coaches and players live out certain real-life game scenarios.

"Once we started seeing these scenarios, we started adding our own possibilities," Schouten says. "So you can put yourself in the player's boots and decide what's the right thing to do. Should you pass to player A, B or C? It's a really handy tool for training."

It's partnered with the football clubs Ajax and PSV in its native Holland, as well as the Royal Dutch Football Association and Utrecht University. So it's already started to change how we watch and experience sport as fans, players and coaches.

The social aspect

Virtually Live has a similar aim. It too takes data from the real world and uses it to build a virtual reconstruction of the sport's settings, characters, sponsors and vehicles. Then the viewer steps in and experiences it from whichever viewpoint they like.

It's signed deals with electric racing league Formula E and the Scottish Professional Football League. But unlike Beyond Sports, it adds a social functionality to the mix.

In keeping with the game's graphics, fans appear as avatars. Most of the interaction is done over VOIP. "That way, you can watch with a friend in another country and it'll be like you're sitting next to them in the stadium," says Virtually Live CEO Tom Impallomeni.

He thinks this social aspect is a killer feature of VR, and could, with the right technological advancements, propel it into the mainstream. "There's a good reason Facebook bought Oculus – it's because it's fundamentally a social platform," he says.

"It removes the need to travel distances, which makes it compelling for people wanting to visit friends and family. It's got a long way to go, but it's tremendously exciting, because even with pretty primitive headsets, you can have incredible experiences."

One company is betting big on it. AltSpaceVR puts the social aspect front and centre of the VR experience. You can chat, play games, watch films, and attend events like comedy or music nights, all in a virtual environment. "The whole focus is for people to hang out together in virtual reality, enjoy each other's company, and do stuff together in VR," says Bruce Wooden, head of developer and community relations at AltspaceVR.

Sports seems like a natural fit. Especially given that AltSpaceVR's environment includes a 2D web browser, on which you can pull up anything on the internet.

"One of the first big events we had was us all watching the Super Bowl together in VR," Wooden says. "There was a huge, Jumbotron-sized screen showing the livestream, and about 200 people watched it with us."

And all without leaving the house.

VR hurdles

There are obviously hurdles to be overcome before we're all watching the Premier League on an HTC Vive. For starters, all of the firms operating in 'true VR' use computer-generated graphics. And no matter how advanced they are, they're not quite the same as watching actual video footage.

Unfortunately, the video camera technology just isn't there yet. Everyone we spoke to agrees that it'll be five to 10 years before true VR can work with proper video. Then we'll be able to zip around the pitch and watch from anywhere.

There are attempts to bring this forward, like FirstV1sion, which is a wearable 360-degree camera approved for use by Euroleague Basketball. But we can imagine players not being too keen to wear a camera that tracks their every move.

Or their every utterance. Indeed, audio poses quite a big problem, because while you want to capture the crowd atmosphere, you don't necessarily want every aspect of it.

"Crowds tend to eff and blind, so you don't want to capture everything they say in a lot of detail," says Impallomeni. "There are also all sorts of privacy issues. If you're capturing everything everyone's saying, you have it on record. So that's something else to think about."

AltSpaceVR has a solution of sorts. "With some events, it's just like being at a sports bar – you hear what everyone's saying, their cheers, their comments, everything," says Wooden. "But you can very easily create a private event with the same livestream, and then it's more like a house party – only people you invite can join in."

It also has an abuse reporting system which is monitored around the clock, and lets users block and mute other users who are being disruptive. If only you could in real life.

Then there's the price. For an Oculus VR or HTC Vive plus a PC with enough grunt to support it, you'll have to spend thousands of pounds. Mobile versions are a good way in for a lot of people, but – as our experience with BBC Sport 360 shows – it's not perfect. But the hardware will soon become more powerful and more affordable. And when it does, we'll be in for a treat.

"Once the camera technologies mature, VR is going to be a game changer," says Wooden. "Then it'll be a real alternative to going to the game in person."



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