For this year's Super Bowl, many of us will head to a local bar or to a friend's place to view the Panthers-Broncos game on a 70-inch smart television.
But future Super Bowls will be totally different, and you might find yourself right in the middle of a huddle, in the locker room before the game or next to the sports commentator. You'll have access to all kinds of granular insights, like how fast a player ran down the field to the end zone, or the average distance a player has to run to get forward yards. You'll have this information in real time -- you won't be waiting on a sport commentator's breakdown. Virtual reality and RFID tags inside players' uniforms have made it possible for you to be in the middle of the action, more engaged than ever before.
"All of this technology really allows fans to never miss a key moment," said Jill Stelfox, vice president and general manager at Zebra Tracking Solutions.
The NFL partnered with Zebra Technologies last year, and RFID receivers have since been installed in all 31 stadiums. Real-time data, generated from RFID tags in football players' uniforms, shows exactly where players are on the field at any given moment. The tags measure distance traveled, maximum and average speeds, and accelerations and decelerations. The technology transmits players' movements on the field within 120 milliseconds, Stelfox said.
The promise of virtual reality
On top of knowing everything about their favorite players, VR has been deemed the next frontier for die-hard fans, providing an unfettered experience: high-definition 360-degree images from one of multiple set points at sporting events. It gives viewers a field of vision up to 30,000 feet.
NFL ticket sales have been declining over the years, especially among millennials, because of the increased cost of tickets and better at-home viewing experiences, with 4K Ultra HD televisions becoming cheaper. As a result, we have higher standards for video. This year's Super Bowl will feature higher-resolution 360-degree and aerial cameras, according to Wired. VR media companies are banking on our penchant for immersive visuals, rushing to form alliances with sports teams and gain access to star players that fans have always wanted to get to know.
STRIVR Studios has partnered with teams in the NFL, NHL, NBA and WNBA and college programs to bring fans to the sidelines of games with a better vantage point of the action than the people in the front row have. This "passive immersive experience," which shows highlights from the game, can last for 90 seconds to a few minutes. STRIVR, which stands for Sports Training in Virtual Reality, has also created interactive games, where the user is the goalie in an NHL game blocking the pucks or a hitter in the MLB championships, long after the sporting event has ended.
"In our research related to fan experience, we found that people don't want to spend more than 90 to 120 seconds in a headset unless it's interactive and gamified," said Logan Mulvey, a managing partner at STRIVR Labs. "With a game, people are engaged and playing for 15 to 20 minutes."
STRIVR Studios won't be doing anything for the Super Bowl this year, but the company is looking to capture the magic of the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup with VR, showing how athletes are training and conveying their personalities outside of the sport.
"You see athletes working 9-to-5 jobs as they're training to qualify," said Brian Murphy, a managing partner at STRIVR. "We want to tell the compelling stories that help fans understand what it's like to be an athlete and everything that goes into it."
Barriers to greater adoption
VR headsets haven't yet gone mainstream, and part of the problem is that the highest-quality devices are costly. While you can get Google Cardboard for cheap, the majority of VR headsets are cost-prohibitive, with Oculus Rift priced at $600 and Samsung's $100 Gear is only compatible with the latest Galaxy devices. Consumers are willing to spend hundreds on gadgets that allow them to call, text, go online, (or track their steps and calories, if we're talking fitness wearables) but the true value of VR -- its ability to put its users into beautiful, fully immersive worlds -- hasn't been proven yet.
Still, analysts are bullish about headsets becoming the next highly sought after tech gadget. Shawn DuBravac, chief economist for the Consumer Technology Association, predicts sales of VR and AR headsets will grow from approximately 200,000 in 2015 to more than 1.2 million in 2016 -- a 500 percent increase.
Another issue with VR is there are some technical challenges to producing a quality video experience, in terms of the video capture, stitching and coding. But VR storytellers are hell-bent on overcoming these challenges, focusing all of their time and energy on telling the best stories and remaining optimistic that VR creates an experience like never before.
DJ Roller, cofounder of NextVR, another VR entertainment company, is convinced that the technology has matured enough for VR experiences to be exceptional.
"We've been in this space for six years, and the chip technology enables video in a high-quality way," said Roller, whose background is in filmmaking, directing and production. "Up until now the most immersive medium was in an IMAX theater, but with VR, you're not just in the front row, you're on the top of Mount Everest or deep on coral reef in Indonesia."
Getting VR content into the hands of every sports fan is another challenge for these companies. To effectively distribute its content, STRIVR does onsite activations at venues such as Madison Square Garden and Gillette Stadium, introducing fans to Google Cardboard, which Murphy calls "the gateway drug" for fans to then purchase a high-end headset.
YouTube's 360 video channel can host these videos after the game is over, so fans can go back and re-watch highlights. The online video goliath has been a major supporter of 360-degree content. At CES 2016 Robert Kyncl, YouTube's chief business officer, announced a partnership with GoPro and plans to deliver more content.
"Many people, including traditional Hollywood producers, are turning to VR as the next frontier. These are really good, smart people," Mulvey said.
STRIVR has its own smart people. Its founder and CEO, Derek Belch, was a kicker on Stanford University's football team in 2007. After taking a class on virtual reality, he came up with the idea to bring the technology to football players for training purposes, but the technology wasn't quite there yet. Six years later when he was Stanford's graduate assistant football coach, Belch revisited the idea with his old professor Jeremy Bailenson, head of Stanford's world-renowned Virtual Human Interaction Lab. It turned into Belch's master's thesis and gave Stanford's team a leg up on competitors in the last three games of the 2014 season.
Today, NFL coaches are using virtual reality to help players and coaches train and analyze plays on the field. The Cowboys, which signed a two-year deal with StriVR, built a soundproof room in their video department for coaches and players to use the technology. Head Coach Jason Garrett told Fortune that StriVR allows him to get closer to all 22 players so he can see details like where they have their feet, where their eyes are looking and hand placement.
The company has hired a few Ph.Ds to understand exactly how people want to experience VR and what resonates.
"Many of them have psychology backgrounds and have tremendous experience in how VR affects the brain and how to create a fully immersive experience for our athletes," Murphy said. "The same concepts apply when building experiences for fans."
Given the way in which we prefer to experience VR (in 15-minute stretches, according to The New York Times) it's highly unlikely that years from now we'll see a half-dozen millennials in a room with VR headsets strapped on, so involved in their lonely experiences that they fail to interact with friends. That would be insane.
What we will see, instead, are call-to-actions on the TV screen to see what Ron Rivera is telling a player on the sidelines, or messages across the bottom of a Jumboscreen to put on the Google Cardboard underneath our seats to follow J.J. Watt off the field.
Roller predicts there's going to be a "coming of age" for this new fan experience -- one where technologies such as granular real-time player analytics, VR and mobile devices work in tandem, rather than compete for a viewer's attention, for a killer second-screen experience.
"Nothing will replace the excitement of being at a game, but we're at the cusp of a revolution," he said.