It’s Opening Day for your favorite baseball team. First pitch is set to take place at 1:05 pm ET. Your team’s ace versus your opponent’s ace. Everyone in attendance shares the same foolish optimism for the season. They sport the same vintage jersey. And, they’ve loaded themselves with the worst food money can buy. Corn dogs, cheese-steaks, a nice brew, and don’t you dare forget my Cracker Jacks. The day only gets better when you take your seat in the first row next to the home dugout, behind the first base line. The catch? None of it is real.
For those die-hards looking to take the next step viewing experience, let me reintroduce you to virtual reality (VR). Already a myriad of professional sports teams have signed on with VR companies such as NextVR, LiveLike and EON Sports in hopes that they can introduce an original fan experience unlike any other.
a�?When you look at VR, it gives you this ability to step away from the traditional rectangular box and lets you engage in your surroundings,a�? said Brandon Reilly, CEO of EON Sports. Reilly and his company are focusing on providing both the fan and the athlete experience with live and past events. The latter could make you a goal line spectator for Vince Young’s game-clinching touchdown scramble in the Rose Bowl with 19 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter against the USC Trojans.
Game-winners, buzzer beaters, walk-off home runs all constitute as can’t-miss moments within a game. Home plate and courtside are seats the average fan drools over. According to New York University Visiting Professor of Media, Culture and Communications Jeremy Blatter, finding the right perspective is essentially what is going to determine the success of VR in sports. a�?It is really about what are the most desirable points of view for spectator-ship,a�? he says. a�?So much of what VR offers is the possibility of experiencing something you otherwise wouldn’t have access to. That doesn’t just mean flying or skydiving. It means transcending class divisions.a�?
What really excites Reilly is what EON Sports has been able to do with the portraying the point of view of an athlete. EonSports’ most popular program, Strike Zone & Pitch Tracking Training Featuring Jason Giambi ($99 if you own a headset), puts the VR user in the batter’s box. It works as a 360-degree batting practice simulator that, according to Reilly, is the closest thing you are going to get to staring down the barrel of a 100 mph fastball from Aroldis Chapman or a 75 mph 12-6 curveball from Clayton Kershaw.
a�?What we provide MLB teams, hands down is the most realistic form of training I’ve ever been in,a�? said Reilly. a�?It’s natural.a�?
Unlike most VR programs or applications, this program is working on not requiring the user to strap on a headset. Instead, the user, whether it be an athlete looking for training or a fan wanting a genuine batting experience, can have body sensors placed on before being put in front of a screena��displaying the baseball diamond with the pitcher patiently waiting on the mound.
VR is an exciting new topic being thrown around with most entertainment media. Bayern Munich and the University of Miami have already started experimenting with using VR for games. How can you not be captivated by a tool that can upgrade your seat without having to leave the comfort of your home? a�?Certainly seems like it would maybe be more niche,a�? said Blatter. a�?It is impossible for it to replace the traditional broadcast right on a base level because the way in which sport works in a spectacle is not entirely about individualized experience so much as a collective experience as a fan.a�? And there lies perhaps VR’s most troubling challenge.
Sports are a communal experience. Whether fans are watching from someone’s home or at the stadium, they are enjoying the game together. The image of a group of fans sitting around the couch each with their own headset on, not interacting, goes against the long-established traditions of game-watching. VR separates the individual spectator from the pack and, consequently, creates a passive fan. No more tailgating. No more Super Bowl parties.
The question remains: is a 360-degree camera from a fixed position going to offer you a better fan experience than watching a stream or a broadcast? However, can you watch an entire three-plus hour-long event through VR lens? Baseball could possibly work, however. The game is mostly stasis and most of the action happens in specific areas. But soccer? If your camera is set up next to the net, you’ll miss half the game. Standard broadcasting cameras have mastered the pace of tracking an event. And they don’t strain your eyes nearly as much.
a�?The market is trying to figure out what does get the consumer engaged,a�? said Reilly. a�?How do we get the audience to enjoy this naturally in an unnatural way?a�?
The first sports VR company that finds a way to make watching sports through a headset a communal, active experience will be the company that leads VR into its next appropriate step. Some companies have experimented with avatars where you and your friends can still see the game together. The catch, of course, is that you are all just virtual manifestations.
Augmented reality (AR) might experience more success. Essentially, AR adds more substance to reality. VR only brings you to a virtual reality in the absence of your presence in that place. Instead of providing a 360-degree point of view from a spot on the field or arena, fans can track statistics for players they follow on their screen.
Or maybe just leave VR to what it’s best at: educational training films.
For now, VR is in media limbo. Consumers are still trying to figure out if VR will become the future of entertainment. Or, if it will follow in the painful footsteps of the 3D TV.