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Feel the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat as if you were on the field with your favorite players

In this article...

  • While there’s room for improvement, VR technology is in now in play, adding another dimension to the sports viewing experience
  • NextVR has already worked with Fox Sports and Turner Sports to deliver VR broadcasts of NASCAR, soccer, golf, hockey and basketball games

At some point, nearly every kid has the same sports fantasy: to score the winning goal or sink the buzzer-beating jump shot.

Here's the sad news, dreamers, that's not going to happen for most of us. That is, until the age of virtual reality, which promises to put us in the frame with our sports heroes.

However, thanks to VR technology, it's possible to feel the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat as if you were actually there on the field with your favorite players.

From couch to court

While live sporting event streaming is not new—and live televised sporting event broadcasting has occurred, incredibly, since the 1930s—live-streaming VR content can transport ardent fans into the middle of the blood, sweat and tears of some of the world's greatest sporting events.

The leader in this field is NextVR, which live-broadcasts VR content using a sophisticated multi-camera set-up. Their custom-built rig uses a small constellation of extremely wide-angle stereoscopic cameras, each shooting at an impressive 6K, 80-frame-per-second resolution that captures not just the visual pop but also the 3D geometry (depth, height, distance) of a location. And their broadcast technology platform can transmit this visual feast at bit rates low enough to stream to mobile VR devices over cellular networks that are running as low as 4 mbps.

NextVR has worked with heavyweights like Fox Sports and Turner Sports to broadcast everything from NASCAR auto racing, to soccer, hockey and basketball games.  Recently, NextVR broadcast the U.S. Open golf tournament, covering four holes, tee to green, as well as the practice range. The NextVR team even offered the ability to tune into a produced feed that could teleport golf fans around the course, just to make sure they didn't miss any of the action.

“VR is the most transformative technology I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

Sport nuts have high hopes for its future, noting that the technology has the potential to “change the way we watch sports,” says Fox Sports play-by-play announcer Joe Buck. Adds Golden State Warriors co-owner (and NextVR investor) Peter Guber: “This is not watching the game; it’s being there. It’s the most transformative technology I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

Capturing the three-dimensionality of sports

NextVR beams footage via the Gear VR headset and a compatible Samsung Galaxy phone running the NextVR app. Technologically, they pull off a nice feat. With sports, they must. If a soccer ball or hockey puck comes flying by, you want an accurate screen map of it happening. “The challenge is to build an accurate representation of the world and do it quickly," says David Cole, co-founder of NextVR.

Maintaining that quality can sometimes be beyond NextVR's immediate control, as home bandwidths can be slow or unreliable. One trick they've learned in reducing the amount of data streamed is by offering high-resolution images at the center of the screen (where the viewer's attention is focused) and lower resolution at the sides and peripheries.

How's the quality? Users say the 3D, 180-degree broadcast is smooth and quick. Basketball, in particular, makes a good test case because the compact 94 by 50-foot court makes it easy to follow the game.

The whole process of broadcasting live, especially in VR, is not without its bumps and glitches, and the company and broadcast affiliates admit it's a learning experience. Improvements, seemingly, are constant. For instance, the audio side of VR for the U.S. Open was improved since last year through the use of multiple microphones and an audio mixer that picked up noises from the main course as well as the cups and crowds. While a single microphone at the top of the camera may be the technically correct way to pick up sound, it's not how people want to experience the three-dimensionality of sports in VR. NextVR calls their audio approach “hybrid binaural."

“VR will continually give us a better sense of what people are experiencing & feeling.”

Any imperfections break the illusion of VR, a reminder that it’s still early days for the technology. “Is this as good as we can get with VR? Definitely not,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said recently at an event. “Technology can always get better, and we can always do a better job. VR is there and more is coming.  It’s going to continually give us a better sense of what people are experiencing and feeling.” But broadcasters and sports fans alike have their eyes on the goal: adding another dimension to the sports viewing experience. 


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