When you think of virtual reality, chances are you picture someone sat alone at home, with their VR headset cutting them off from the rest of the world. You don't tend to picture legions of sports fans cheering their team on in a stadium. And with good cause: why would they need a virtual experience when the real thing is right in front of them?
But virtual and mixed reality is already in use in some stadiums around the world. And according to the experts, it'll soon be as much a part of the match-day experience as the pre-game pint.
Beyond the headset
This doesn't mean spectators will be lost in faraway lands when they should be watching the match. Today's virtual reality experience – consisting of a headset, maybe a couple of controllers and some bruised shins where you've banged into the coffee table – is only the tip of the VR iceberg.
"It's important to think beyond the headset," says Michael Davies, senior vice president, field and technical operations at Fox Sports. "There are techniques that open virtual reality up to everybody, be it 360-degree video, magic window, or sophisticated production techniques." Far from just being seen through a headset, VR could be on your phone or even on the giant replay screen inside the stadium. And if you think that sounds implausible, just take a look at the 360-degree halo screen that'll be built into the roof of Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium when it opens next year.
Of course, a screen like that won't be seen at your average Sunday league club. But with at-home sports viewing offering more options than ever – including split-screen, VR and 4K, not to mention a comfy sofa and no queues for the toilets – clubs will have to work harder to entice fans to the stadium. VR is just another weapon in their arsenal.
Real-life NBA Jam
VR is still a young technology, so sales are small. (According to Strategy Analytics, only two million headsets will be sold in the UK this year, half of which will be the cheap 'shells' for your phone, like Google Cardboard.)
Indeed, many experts acknowledge the limits of the current technology, but that doesn't dim their enthusiasm for its potential. "The biggest thing holding back VR at the moment is the headset," says Michael Conley, vice president of digital for reigning NBA champions the Cleveland Cavaliers. "If they figured out how to make something like Google Glass functional in VR, that would be a huge step. As long as it looked less ludicrous."
In a few years, today's headsets will look about as cutting-edge as a VCR. Once they've become smaller, sleeker and cheaper, they'll become as ubiquitous as smartphones. And that's when the real fun starts.
"Once the glasses are small and comfortable and can also do mixed reality and augmented reality, everyone will have them," says Jeff Marsilio, vice president of global media for the NBA. "I can imagine the day where you're sitting in the stadium looking at a player, and his stats come up and float over his head. Or maybe you choose to augment the experience with comic book 'pow', 'bam' effects. You could even give them big heads like in NBA Jam. Anything's possible. It really becomes a question of what the fans want."
Big heads, Jeff. We definitely want big heads.
The state of play
So what's happening right now to make this future possible? Sky and Manchester City have each launched virtual reality apps lately, but, like most other sports apps that use VR, they're very much highlights packages best watched at home.
In terms of the in-stadium experience, VR has been limited to promotional demos – Mountain Dew let fans paint in VR using Google's Tilt Brush app at the NBA's All-Star Game this year, and for the Eastern Conference semi-finals (also in the NBA) Budweiser created a Google Cardboard-style headset that doubles as a beer carrier.
Sponsors are excited by VR, according to Marsilio. But when teams and leagues ask what they want to do with it, they shrug and say, "You tell us."
An ever-evolving stadium
Today's stadiums are multi-purpose venues, with shops, clubs, bars, restaurants and more. It's easy to see VR becoming a part of these leisure experiences. Even the nature of sports is changing, thanks to the rise of eSports. The Amsterdam ArenA – home to Ajax – already hosts eSports events that attract around 25,000 fans. Ajax has also signed a deal with Koen Weijland, five-time Dutch champion of the FIFA video game. "Maybe one day the computer game will be more popular than the real thing," muses Henk Markerink, CEO of the Amsterdam ArenA.
This opens all sorts of opportunities for VR. "Parts of the building could be broken out for virtual reality experiences," says Brian Mirakian, director of Populous, a design and architecture agency that specialises in stadiums. "It could have a club environment for 500 - 1,000 people, with a virtual experience that gives you behind-the-scenes access. And cameras at pitch level could let you get inside the game in a different way. As we go beyond the headset, there will be a lot of ways to enrich the match-day experience."
Until then, the pioneers have a lot to do. VR has had a number of false starts over the years, so perhaps their biggest task will be winning over a sceptical public. "Our responsibility is to do the platform justice in creating good content so the industry as a whole gets a good reputation," says Conley. "But if the technology is done right, there are no boundaries as to where it can go."