Seeing what you believe is real may be just one part of believing in the real world of virtual reality.
One of the latest and boldest moves in the evolution of this buzz-worthy technology, one many are banking on to alter the way sports is consumed by viewers in the next five to 10 years, happened on Saturday night when Fox Sports offered a VR option to its over-the-air coverage of the Major League Soccer championship game between Seattle and Toronto.
By uploading the FoxSportsVR app to a smartphone or tablet, committing to either watching through a set of goggles or using the “magic screen” function where the device it held at eye level and rotates as much as the equilibrium allows, the contest turned from one that otherwise might have been passed over for a UCLA-Michigan basketball game into an event that demanded attention.
If you faced the right way, kept the earbud in place and maneuvered the white dot on the screen to activate one of four targets that changed the vantage point from either side of the midfield stripe to behind each goal keeper (a major rush on corner kicks), it just took a few clunky moments of buffering to adjust to the 180-degree field of vision as well as what was also a 30-second delay over what was happening on the linear TV screen.
Had we really duped our brain into buying into the fantasy that we were in a stadium luxury box even though we knew we throw another log in the fireplace as it seemed to be freezing down on the pitch?
And while all this was free to view, would we literally be asked to buy into this with a credit card number in the future if this perk was offered as an accompaniment?
IN A TEST PATTERN
Brave as we may be in today’s sports TV viewing world, virtual reality’s potential has virtually dominated the conversation with some guarded reactions. Realistically, it’s a process that needs to be tested by as many entry points as possible for those willing to adapt and survive. Where this vision quest goes next may depend as much on viewer response as what can be tweaked on the production and technology side.
“As happy as we’ve been so far, we know we’re early on in the experience so it’s important to get really good feedback from users and try to figure out how if how best to get it into the hands of a broader audience,” said Devin Poolman, Fox Sports’ senior vice president of digital platforms.
“We’re not trying to rush any part of this. We’ve been doing things incrementally but we are increasingly confident in the quality of the experience improving.”
New York-based LiveLike worked with Fox on this MLS VR rollout, which for the first time included the ability of instant replay. LiveLike has done three college football games with Fox, including the recent Big Ten championship.
Newport Beach-based NextVR has also been at the forefront of integrating this, and it has the clout of Hollywood producer Peter Guber, who also owns the Golden State Warriors and a nice chunk of the Dodgers, as a major investor and advocate.
It was NextVR’s partnership with Fox that led to trying things at the recent Daytona 500 and U.S. Open golf tournament, as well as pro boxing, college basketball, overseas soccer and even monster truck rallies.
NextVR executive chairman Brad Allen says that, at the moment, the “smaller the venue the better” for virtual reality to really pop, mostly because the resolution has not been perfected past the “looking through the screen-door effect” – think of how you watched TV in pre-high definition. And as is with any sport, “the closer you are, the better as well,” he said, which is why his company has focused on perfecting a weekly NBA game for those who subscribe to the League Pass package.
“When you can put the unmanned camera on the scorer’s table, and it barely takes up any room, you can see players up and down the court and it’s far more intimate,” said Allen. “Just as if you were on the turnbuckle at a boxing event or on the fence of the Octagon at an UFC fight.”
As the NBA gets into this deeper, it’s no secret that Clippers owner Steve Ballmer wants to incorporate VR as part of a fan interactive package that could be incorporated with its cable TV deal on Prime Ticket/Fox Sports West.
Miheer Walavalkar, LiveLike’s chief business officer, believes that “every sports’ experience can be tailored” with this improving software.
“I don’t necessarily think one sports fits all,” he said. “Smaller events make sense for some things, but with our approach, there can be an interactive and a feeling of movement at just about any event.”
Think of the old Disneyland attraction in Tomorrowland where you entered that 360-degree theater and felt as if you were sitting on top of a fire truck as he was speeding through L.A., or soaring through the Grand Canyon in a helicopter.
That was a movie. This has upped real-time expectations.
IS THIS 3D ALL OVER AGAIN?
For as many headlines as one can exhume from recent stories about how VR will be sports’ biggest game-changer, or termeda paradigm shift for sports viewing, there are others who warn that, in reality, it can’t really “transform” the current HD, zoom-in camera production that also has super slo-mo replay and a discerning director calling the shots. How much better can it really get?
“I think you have to put the timing of it into the equation,” said Fox’s Poolman. “Long term, virtual reality is a game changer for sports, but there needs to be a number of improvements in the headsets and the quality of the picture. In the short term, our challenge is to use this time teach and to understanding how VR can start as a companion experience to the TV set in the living room but then maybe be integrated and allow you to control the experience. There’s a path for all this to work.”
Those who dream about virtual reality’s potential may also call it something of a nightmare about how recent promises of 3D technology didn’t really result in consumers rushing out to buy new TV sets and geeking out with the special glasses.
If VR has an obvious drawback, it’s the headgear taking away from any sort of communal sports experience (unless you’re just fine sitting alone) and it hasn’t advanced enough to adapt to social media interplay.
That’s one reason why Fox and LiveLike have been focused more on how to convey the VR feel without the need of headsets, which it says 90 percent of users prefer for now.
“(Comparing it to 3D) is like apples to oranges,” said NextVR’s Allen. “I do think we are in the early cycle of hardware with this – like the old clunky brick cell phones. As we now put phones in our pockets, and we will get goggles down to glasses, plus add the social element so you don’t feel so isolated.”
Fox’s Poolman said that while “the adoption curve with 3D missed the mark in a lot of ways, the production expenses and additional overhead with virtual reality is really incremental. VR integrates well into our production workflow. We do have new cameras for this, but they are effectively wide-angle lenses. The new cameras on site are essentially in the same cameras spots used for normal linear production.”
It’s also up how forward-thinking leagues are to trying this with their existing TV rights holders. If Fox could implement something VR related for its upcoming Super Bowl in Houston, that could be another major step.
“An event of that magnitude, or a World Series Game 7, it all depends on the leagues, but you can always try it, right?” asked Walavalkar.
To date, the NFL has just been OK with some experimentation. It did a deal with GoogleVR for a nine-part series of video features on the league’s YouTube.com channel. The first episode on the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive line might get you dizzy if you try to follow the arrows.
If you’re apt to have some distress when it comes to motion sickness, this may take some getting used to. But if you’re tickled by roller coasters and have unlimited data on your phone (don’t overlook that part), why not grab the padded handrail and ride it out?
A SPORTY MEDIA GIFT LIST
As virtual reality opportunities in sports viewing expands, there is the basic handheld $10 Insignia or $15 Google cardboard googles that adapt to a horizontal iPhone placement. Merge VR ($79) or Gear VR ($100, which adapts to a Samsung Galaxy phone) is the next step up, with the PlayStation VR headset ($400) or Facebook’s Oculus Rift ($600) on the highest end.
In the sports media realm (aside from the books recommended recently) here are other things we’d endorse:
• Classic graphics: PrinstantReplays.com is a Nashville, Tenn., based company that creatively documents historical sports moments in a slick Xs-and-0s presentation extremely suitable for framing and collecting. Lakers-related prints include Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game, Jerry West’s 60-foot shot in the NBA Finals and Magic Johnson’s junior skyhook in the 1987 NBA Finals. Dodgers-related prints include the 1988 World Series Kirk Gibson homer. Plus jersey numbers. Prints and T-shirts start at $25.
• The voice of Scully: Even for the non-Catholic, the idea of Vin Scully reading classic biblical passages as part of the rosary prayer gives new meaning to the “voice from the heavens.” A $15 two-CD set also contributes to the organization that holds Masses at the ballparks across the country on Sunday game days. More info: www.CatholicAthletesForChrist.com
• A museum trip: The Dodgers and the Baseball Hall of Fame have coordinated with Sports Museum of L.A. curator/collector Gary Cypres for a pop-up museum at Dodger Stadium that opened earlier this month. “Picturing America’s Pastime” is included – 51 framed photographs that represent part of the Hall of Fame’s hundreds of thousands of images collected over the last 150 years. The exhibit on the left-field reserve level team store runs through March 3-5 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $10. More info on regular and holiday hours and purchase tickets: www.dodgers.com/museum. The museum visit may be coordinated with a Dodger Stadium tour (admission: $20, for 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. tours).