The End of the Sideline: How VR is Taking Us Ever Closer to the Game

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Alex Mahon, CEO, The Foundry

We as consumers have developed a seemingly insatiable demand to get closer to what interests us, with the buzzwords ‘connectivity’ and ‘authenticity’ everywhere in content and brands. The trend for closeness is super prevalent in sport, where being ‘in’ the game is such an important part of the experience. Alex Mahon, CEO of VR software company, The Foundry, discusses where this immersive technology is set to take us in the future.

The ultimate toolset for immersive experience is virtual reality, starting with 360 video. This year we saw 360 video used for the first time in the American Superbowl, extending the brand beyond the TV screen and putting people in the centre of the action, without departing from the comfort of their own home. Meanwhile, the Rio Olympics pushed the VR hype to new levels.

In the UK, the first half of 2016 has been a rollercoaster year for sports fans. We’ve seen England triumph in the Six Nations and fall from grace in the Euros, Murray win his second Wimbledon title, and most recently Great Britain come second in the Olympics! While a lucky few manage to bag tickets to such events, most watch from home, at the mercy of the broadcast stream. The majority of us are limited to certain events and camera angles, minimising our engagement as fans. But as we demand more immersive sports experiences, is the way we consume sport set to change?

We are in the hype before the storm – a period just before VR is set to break out – waiting for major new hardware launches from the likes of PlayStation, Google and no doubt Apple. We’ve already seen VR enter the gaming and film world, and now development in the realm of sports entertainment is really gaining. Looking forward, a crystal ball Goldman Sachs report predicts that VR live event streaming could become a $4.1 billion market with 95 million users by 2025.

Major sporting organisations are rallying behind the technology. Earlier this year, Sky Sports partnered with Premier League team Manchester City, to VR live stream its game against Arsenal. The club’s director of marketing and media, Diego Gigliani, referred to it as “building [a] culture of early innovation and experimentation”. The club has also installed a 360 degree camera in the players’ tunnel to give fans access to an area they wouldn’t usually see. It uses footage such as this for its ‘City VR’ app that sits alongside branded cardboard VR devices that they give out free to members.

Across the pond, both the NFL and the NBA have shown interest in adopting the technology. NextVR in California is working with both leagues to allow fans to live stream games through VR headsets. One of the things it is working on is the ability for fans to teleport themselves to different locations around the ground. So one minute you could be pitch-side, and the next you could be checking out the view at the top of the stands.

Meanwhile in Rio, NBC partnered with Samsung to collate over 7,000 hours of VR content through specially developed cameras, which were customised to optimise content capture by sporting event. Ahead of the games, Team GB worked with BAE Systems to create 3D simulations of the different course layouts, which could then be accessed through VR headsets for training purposes.

Nonetheless, there are still many barriers to mass adoption of VR – access to hardware, high prices, motion sickness and the technical depth of knowledge required. However, unlike the gaming and film industries which have the challenge of creating new and compelling content, the sports industry does at least have the core content available to work with – closeness to the game itself is a huge advantage for driving adoption. The challenge will come in providing and monetising this truly immersive experience that fans can’t get. At The Foundry, we’re working with our clients to overcome these challenges and create engaging content that will feed consumers’ growing demand whilst taking away some of the early stage technical pain. 

What we are seeing today are the first steps on a long exploration of where VR will take us. For sport there is no doubt that the appetite is there and the possibilities are seriously interesting. It’s not hard to imagine a time very soon where fans, unable to attend a game, have the ability to buy a ‘VR ticket’ and either choose their specific seat or teleport around a ground, depending on where the action is taking place. Technology now enables fans on the opposite side of the globe to experience an atmosphere they wouldn’t be able to experience otherwise; the future for VR in sport is kicking off.

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