It’s a term that’s being thrown around constantly these days, as the technology (or basic forms of it, at least) becomes more and more prevalent. And it’s not just a buzzed-about topic at tech-centric events like CES or an experience available only to those with +$600 laying around for an Oculus Rift. Thanks to inexpensive options like Google Cardboard, it’s becoming more and more accessible, and thanks to Google Expeditions, it’s even being implemented in classrooms.
Over the last year, headlines have announced the use of VR in situations ranging from practicing to spectating. We’ve read articles, seen TV segments and gotten serious insight into how the tech is being used to help train some of the country’s greatest athletes, and some of us have even experienced a sports event being streamed live in VR. This piece is going to focus on those situations, but first we need to clarify one thing:
In many cases, what’s being dubbed “virtual reality” or “VR” isn’t actually virtual reality or VR—at least in the true sense.
“It’s virtual reality in the sense that you have a headset on, but you and I both know that’s not VR,” says Chaotic Moon Creative Technologist Matthew Murray. “It’s using the VR equipment, but it’s not interactive; it’s passive. In the true aesthetic, it’s not virtual reality—it’s immersive, 360 video.”
In other words, while the technology is being used to place players and fans in a situation, it doesn’t yet give them the ability to affect the situation. We’ll get into the future of the technology and the ways it could (and probably will) be used eventually, but for now let’s dive into the way the admittedly awesome technology is being used now.
For consistency and clarity’s sake, we’ll still use the terms VR and virtual reality, as that’s what it’s being commonly referred to.
FOR THE PLAYERS
Aside from the obvious health benefits of athletics, there’s no denying the damage that contact sports—especially for prolonged periods, at high intensities—can do on the body, and for every team’s winning season, there’s an often untold tale of torn ACLs and concussions, fractured this and pulled that.
Whether it’s worth it or not is a different discussion entirely—we’re not undermining the importance, excitement or fun of sports in the slightest. We’re just saying that reducing the amount of wear and tear a player endures is always a good thing, and virtual reality could do just that.
Stanford football, for example, recently invested in virtual reality as a means of training its quarterbacks, using headsets to give them the sensation of being on the field and helping them better read defenses and blitzes, while coaches are able to get in the heads of their quarterbacks and explore their perspective. The integration of real live video with virtual reality allows the quarterbacks, from starter to fifth-string, to go through plays dozens of times without suffering one hit. And on the game-improvement front, it doesn’t just work as well as film—it works better. The main man behind the tech, Jeremy Bailenson, has discovered that users retain 33% more from VR than standard video. Last March, Fox Sports reported the following stats after the training method was implemented:
Kevin Hogan went from 64 percent of his passes up to 76 percent after the Stanford quarterback started using this headset regularly for about 20 minutes before games…[and] went from averaging 24 points a game to 38 in those final three games.The team finished the year scoring on every one of its last 27 trips to the Red Zone when their first two units were on the field, [when] was scoring just around 50 percent inside the 20-yard-line before that.
The reality might be virtual, but the results are real.
Bailenson’s idea developed into STRIVR Labs, and it’s not just Hogan (who had the best three games of his career after using the technology) and Stanford who have benefitted. Four NFL teams—The Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, and the Minnesota Vikings—all partnered with the company this season to train in VR.
And let’s not forget that, at least for now, Arizona’s Super Bowl hopes are still alive.
FOR THE FANS
While it’s every fan’s dream to be courtside during the NBA finals, on the 50-yard line at the Super Bowl, or…um…wherever the optimal place is to be at a NASCAR race (though for most of us that might be far, far away from a NASCAR race), it’s often impossible. VR, however, can make that dream a, um, virtual reality, and the technology is already being implemented to step up the spectating experience and give fans the sensation of being at the game, all without leaving their home.
Take NBA opening night, for example, when Golden State kicked off the 2015-2016 season with a W (the first in what would be a record-breaking 24-win start). Not only did Warriors fans in the stadium get to experience the excitement, but—thanks to a collaboration between the NBA, Turner Sports and NextVR—fans with Samsung Gear VR headset got to experience it in VR as well, making the National Basketball League the first major sports league to live-stream a version of a game in virtual reality. (Note: NextVR, in what is indisputably the most dull use of the technology ever, also streamed that month’s Democratic debate in VR.)
While users couldn’t actually smell the sweat or get caught on the kiss cam when they watched Stephen Curry lead the warriors to a 111-95 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans, it still made for an impressively immersive experience (and the beer was a lot cheaper from where they were watching it in their living rooms). It was also a pretty groundbreaking moment for both the sports world and virtual reality, and gave us a taste of what we can expect in the future.
And in terms of near future, take January 23rd, when Fox Sports will work with NextVR to offer the Premier Boxing Champions matches live in virtual reality. For this, the press release reads, “NextVR will set up multiple cameras around the ring, including ringside, to capture the action in immersive, high-definition virtual reality, providing fight fans the best seat in the house and compelling views they never had access to before. Additionally, fight commentary and graphics will be included in the virtual reality live stream.”
This isn’t the first time the two companies have worked together, either, as in 2015 the Auto Club 400 NASCAR race and the US Open Golf Championship were both broadcasted in virtual reality. (Note: Those are probably only slightly more exciting than the Democratic debate.)
FOR THE FUTURE
The last year has been huge in terms of sports and the idea of virtual reality—from both a fan and player’s perspective—and as technology becomes more advanced, we’re set to move away from this idea of virtual reality and more towards VR in the true sense.
“Right now they’re training based on video captured from the field,” Murray says. “The next iteration is room-scale VR, and putting the QB in a room where he can actually move like he’s on the field and work with a physical ball.”
This technology could give players the chance to not just re-watch the game but re-live it–and even change the outcome.
“If we had a system that gathered movement data on the field using image recognition and blob detection, we could pipe that data into something like Madden and you could recreate every single play from a game,” explains Chaotic Moon Solutions Engineer Marc Boudria, “and since you’re already driving it with a game engine, you could make it interactive.”
“All you need is the real data from the first few seconds of the game,” Boudria explains. “You duplicate the situation, and the 21 other virtual players are programmed to act as they did in the actual game. The quarterback is the variable and affects change. If the QB makes the same play as he did in the game, the same outcome will result. If he does a different play, then the AI of a game like Madden powers the other players to respond accordingly, and there will be a different outcome. It’s a new way to coach decision-making.”
In other words, instead of simply watching game tape in typical or 360 form, the player could use VR to revisit and relive a play countless times, in different ways, to actually get back in the game and make the right call. Certain aspects could be scripted to fit the original situation (players on the field, their positions, their initial moves), but instead of just re-watching what happened, the QB could make a decision, take action, and literally jerk away from defenders or make a throw, and the “players” would react—effectively giving the QB a second chance.
As for how fans could benefit from a true VR experience…well, that remains to be seen.
In summation, the technology that’s being advertised as VR, while not technically VR is still pretty awesome, and there’s no arguing with keeping athletes healthier, improving player skills, and helping fans enjoy a more in-your-face sports-watching experience. What’s going to be interesting is seeing how a true version of technology is eventually implemented—and how soon—and the ways that virtual reality will, quite literally, change the game.