Virtual reality is going to change how you watch F1
Formula 1 is the ultimate form of motorsport, but in 2016 it faces an increasingly important issue: engagement. F1 races are best watched trackside, with the cars racing just metres away, but Formula 1's global nature means capturing the imagination of fans worldwide is hugely important too. Despite being the most advanced sports in the world, F1 has lagged behind other sports when it comes to using tech to improve the show – and that's where the Tata Communications Connectivity Innovation Prize comes in.
The Connectivity Innovation prize
Hosted by Tata Communications for the past two years, the prize challenges coders, designers and anyone in between to use technology to improve fan engagement or the workflow of F1 teams. This year's winner, Datu YogaBrata, imagined a 360-degree virtual trackside experience that could effectively transport fans to the edge of the track.
YogaBrata described “agents” that would walk around the track with 360-degree cameras, allowing viewers to pick which locations they wanted to virtually wander around. And while today's 4G technology might not allow viewers a 360-degree live stream, YogaBrata told me the 360-degree experience could just be a static image that refreshed every so often.
“There's no bigger or more powerful showcase for technological innovation than F1, and VR and AR will push the excitement of the sport even further,” he added. “My idea aims to capitalise on that by bringing fans closer to the exciting world of F1 than ever before. I'm thrilled that the judges saw the potential of my virtual trackside experience for fans.” YogaBrata left with a cheque for $50,000 and a bespoke trophy presented to him by Lewis Hamilton.
Using AR to improve workflow
Although YogaBrata's idea won, there were several other interesting projects on show too. For example, one used the power of AR to solve a huge problem in F1. To save costs, and also because of sheer space restrictions, teams are only allowed to bring a limited number of team members to each race, while the rest are forced to work from mission control centres back at base.
Teams currently rely on tools such as Slack and voice chats to communicate data, but one idea used HoloLens to bring augmented reality into the mix. The result? The technology made it easier for engineers to quickly share data visualisations and ideas, and it's also very private – so sensitive information can be discussed too.
Using tech to engage fans
Although the Connectivity Prize might seem like something of a novelty, it actually touches on some key problems Formula 1 faces today – as well as some possible solutions. Simply put, Formula 1 isn't getting the reach or engagement it should. Younger people aren't as interested in the sport as you'd think, and many would rather watch other sports such as NFL, WEC and football, to name just a few.
Part of that problem stems from the perceived quality of the racing and competition, but a lot of it also stems from the nature of the sport. Unlike football or even athletics, it's impossible to properly experience F1 through your TV, because it never really captures the sound, the smell or the excitement of a race – and it's up to technology, whether it's VR or social media – to bridge that gap.
“It's good to see… how we might take Formula 1 further afield, especially to countries that don't have a track or any racing series, and engage new fans and particularly the young fans, which is so important to any sport,” said former F1 driver and commentator Martin Brundle at the event.
“It's very much about how we engage with that audience, how we attract them and keep them engaged – and how we get to all of the tools that they like to use, obviously the phones and the iPads, and all of the other ways of interacting with the sport. It's now about reach and about all the different platforms and how far we can get out there and engage people. It's changing very quickly.”
Just a few weeks ago, Lewis Hamilton was condemned for Snapchatting during a drivers' press conference, and the whole debacle sums up exactly why F1 is falling in popularity with a younger generation. F1 press conferences have followed the same format for decades, and while just a few minutes are usually shown on TV, they actually go on for a while.
Packed with journalists and rarely broadcast in full, these sorts of events make F1 look less exciting than it actually is, and Hamilton's attempt to inject some humour by using Snapchat was a great idea. Lewis Hamilton is one of the more prolific users of Snapchat, and for him it was another way of giving his followers and fans an insider's perspective of the sport.
That's the sort of behind-the-scenes insight that fans will love, and a lot of the technology and ideas I saw at Tata's event aimed to give people more access to that side of the sport. While Formula E uses social media for things like FanBoost – a Twitter vote that sees the most popular drivers get an extra boost during the race – Formula 1 seems to be relatively ignorant of social media.
After the presentations, we were told that F1 would start presenting its races in 4K next year, and while that's obviously progressive and hugely important, it's the second screen and VR apps that I find most exciting. Whether it's virtually placing yourself in the driver's seat, or simply getting fans to submit questions to drivers via Twitter, I'm hoping that technology will help F1 get the engagement and fans it so richly deserves.
Of course, all that technology is designed to supplement great racing, and it's down to the drivers, teams and rule makers to ensure we get that. In 2017, Formula 1 will undergo one of its biggest rule changes in recent times. Cars are going to go faster around corners, have larger tyres, and downforce will keep them even more glued to the road than before. That means lap times should fall by around five seconds – and with any luck, it'll also make for better racing than this year.