Virtual Reality Puts Sports Fans in the Game

Jason Johnson Freelance writer and editor

The NHL, NASCAR, MLB and NBA are investigating new technologies to create an even better viewing experience.

Virtual reality is often thought of as the domain of couch-bound video game fans, but its more promising applications could transform the way people watch sports.

During the virtual reality live-stream of last month’s US Open golf tournament, for instance, viewers could see the game from directly behind Jordan Spieth as he teed off. Participants were so close that the head of his driver swung inches before their virtual noses.

Virtual reality has the ability to put sports fans in the middle of the action, but it also gives them unprecedented control over how they see the game.

What the general public has come to expect from virtual reality is immersion — the sensation of being in an exciting far-away place while sitting in a recliner at home.

“An interesting aspect of wearing a VR helmet is thinking, ‘I’m in the middle of a Chicago Bulls game,’ but I’m actually in my living room,” said Eric Mantion, a developer evangelist at Intel who sees an opportunity for companies to entice rabid sports fans.

“Scalped tickets for the Super Bowl went for $2,000. Will people pay a stupid amount of money for sports experiences? Yes, but the helmet would have to bring enough value to have mass-market appeal,” he said.


Right now, virtual reality production companies and sports arenas recognize the opportunity. They are gearing up to bring this body-swapping sensation to every major sporting scene.

The process is similar to a regular sports broadcast, but the virtual reality version uses a special camera to capture the game stereoscopically, then transmits it over the internet to viewers. These viewers then wear virtual reality goggles to create the illusion that you are in another place.

Sports leagues already pursuing virtual reality broadcasting include the NHL, NASCAR, Major League Baseball, the Premier League and the NBA. If virtual reality proves to be the next big thing, sports will be ready.

“The typical words we hear are, ‘Holy…!’ Whatever you want to say,” said Brad Allen of NextVR, an on-demand virtual reality broadcasting company from Laguna Beach, California. As a sports fan and the executive chairman of the 6-year-old company, Allen is genuinely excited about the future of virtual reality and sports.

NextVR’s business model is focused on a technology called “lens-to-lens,” which specializes in beaming athletic competitions of all varieties in 6K resolution to virtual reality viewing devices around the world.

Unlike traditional widescreen cameras that shoot from just one angle, NextVR’s multi-directional camera rigs capture the game stereoscopically in 360 degrees.


This allows a home viewer who is wearing a pair of virtual reality goggles to swivel her head back and forth as the ball swings from one end of the court to the other, as if she was sitting court-side at a basketball game.

The disembodied result is that “you don’t feel like you’re at home watching TV,” Allen said. “You feel like you are there, wherever you look.”

The beauty of this technology, aside from the cross-continental quantum leap, is that it wrests the control of the camera from cable channels.

Watching sports in virtual reality requires a more active participation, which may rule out binge-watching football in a half-conscious state on the sofa. But the payoff is precision control over the viewing experience: Viewers can see what they want, when they want.

Similar to the cameras found in video games, cameras in virtual reality are interactive. “When you have the goggles on, you can actually switch from one camera position to the next,” Allen explained.

For instance, in a basketball arena, viewers can switch between multiple viewpoints. If watching from the scorer’s table is too close for comfort, participants can change the view to a more traditional top-down, mid-court scene.

If sports fans would rather see the game from behind the basket when their team is on offense, that’s an option, too.

The various cameras can be toggled with a simple button-press, but there is plenty of space for deeper functionality.

Allen spoke of a slick user interface called “the back 180,” which captures the area behind the viewer.

This isn’t particularly useful for viewing a sporting event, which is why that area can be used to house applications like fantasy sports, player and team stats and social media. This means fans don’t have to unmask from the virtual-reality goggles to rage-tweet about a blown call.


The methods for pulling these apps around to the front of the viewer and interacting them are still a work in progress.

NextVR’s broadcasts are in a trial run, and the only way fans can see them is to be at select locations where they are broadcasted from the sport event to the virtual reality viewing room.

Eventually, however, Allen believes “there will be handheld controllers, something almost like a hologram, air typing,” but, for now, the only virtual reality headsets available to consumers are glorified tablets and cellphones with voice command capabilities.

There’s also an opportunity to create virtual reality equipment that integrates augmented reality components and RealSense technology to give wearers a sense of their surroundings when they wear the helmet or goggles.

That’s still a long way off. While virtual reality hardware has come a long way in the past few years, it’s nowhere near perfect. Mantion predicts the adoption curve will be slow — especially for sporting events that run for hours at a time.

“Imagine wearing a football helmet with a brick strapped to the top of it for five hours,” he said. “Until someone makes the iPhone of VR helmets, the hardware just isn’t there yet.”



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