Virtual reality: the killer application that will change our sports watching experience

Declining hardware prices are playing a role in boosting demand for virtual reality headsets and visors, but what will make it a killer application is its ability to offer an attractive, exciting, immersive, high-quality user experience… especially when it comes to sports

Virtual Reality (VR) is far from being news, but in the last two years surging interest on the part of companies and individuals has contributed to accelerating its technological maturity (which results in lower prices) as well as demand. This could soon lead to a boom in demand from the general public, turning VR into the real killer application of sports.

Is today’s Virtual Reality like TV in the 1940s and 50s?

In a recent posting on Forbes pages, Todd Klein sees a similarity with the exponential growth in TV set sales, which in the United States coincided with an important event: the broadcasting, in 1947, of the baseball game that the New York Yankees won against the Brooklyn Dodgers during the World Series.

From 1928 (when television was introduced in the US) and 1947, apart from the initially slow rate at which TV became a staple in American homes, there was essentially no important event or broadcasters’ choice that could bring about a faster spreading of TV or higher profits for producers and distributors. This was the situation until 1947.

Then, points out Klein, after than first game everything changed and the figures are there to prove it: the year after that game was broadcast, sales of TV sets soared by as much as 8 times over 1947, another 5 times the next year, and more than 50 million sets were sold in the following 6 years. If compared to the 7,000 TV sets sold between 1939 and 1941 — and less than 4 million in 1947 — these figures clearly demonstrate the extent of the impact that sports had on the spreading of TVs in American livings rooms.

Klein’s analysis and comparison is the most straightforward explanation of the staggering demand for TV sets at that time and, far from being anachronistic, could today apply to the demand for Virtual Reality solutions and services: the desire to be closer to professional athletes, experience the thrill of the game “together” with them, being one with the fans at the stadium, feeling part of a story and live it in person.

Same motives, even more demanding expectations: to personalize the experience and the involvement

If the reasons that induced Americans to own a TV set in order to watch their favorite sports more closely are the same that will not promote VT, it should also be said that today’s fans are much more demanding, and the emotional component of an immersive and unique experience becomes the determining factor in a product’s success.

We have seen in the past interesting projects that never made it to the general public, but helped to accelerate today’s high demand for VR. Take for example the Skycam (the stabilized and cabled software-controlled camera that moves along overhead cables across very large spaces like stadiums, playing fields and other extensive venues), first introduced in 1984 by CBS during a football game in San Diego: initially considered a too expensive innovation, although it never became a mass product, today it is one of the most interesting technologies for filming large sports events, the Olympics, or top concerts.

From Skycam to GoPro down to today’s drones, all in all each step in the process was along the same lines, and demand for the latter two technologies is still driven by user experience: the desire to share videos with other fans, have more information and the possibility of accessing more multimedia contents, be able to distribute them on the social media… all these motives suggest that the needs of sports enthusiasts are heading in the direction of an increasingly personalized, social and involving user experience.

This is why I believe that VR will be the real new killer application for sports. With Virtual Reality, fans will be able to customize their favorite sports programs to their liking, choose the viewing angle of an event, a game, a team’s press conference, “step inside” the locker rooms not through the cameraman’s lens but through their own headset, and take a look at whatever they want and get close to the player they admire.

More: with VR people will be able to create their own commentary to the game and share with other fans an exciting narrative that will turn them into the protagonists of the “story”. All this, in real time!

Transforming fans’ involvement into business: this is how VR will become a “killer app”

For a better understanding of where and how “social VR” and sports can meet, just think of Facebook’s current transactions, the multinational’s investments in Oculus and its recent announcement of a partnership with Stadium, the sports network company that distributes sports reports and contents in live streaming: Facebook will offer on its platform the live contents produced by Stadium featuring 15 football games between college teams, 9 Conference USA games and 6 Mountain West games.

Unlike the games broadcast on traditional media, live matches via Facebook will leverage the digital platform to introduce various interactive options as part of the viewing experience. For example, they will include a live chat moderated by “football personalities”, an on-air presentation, plus several services managed by dedicated “social teams” to involve the fan community in conversation and sharing experiences, as well as allow them to have a direct contact with players and athletes.

Clearly, Facebook is not the only company that has grabbed this business opportunity; Twitter has already signed agreements with sports clubs to broadcast the live streaming of events and games (e.g. NBA matches); Amazon offers similar services for NFL — National Football League, the leading professional football league in North America.

Why OTTs — Over The Top companies like Facebook, Twitter and Amazon have decided to invest in VR-based interactive sports services is easy to understand: all these “interactions” generate a high number of “touch points” and connections that can more effectively be converted into business opportunities by leveraging the users’ emotions. Users who have a personalized, unique and involving experience are more willing to complete it and enrich it by purchasing other services, or objects and gadgets that celebrate their favorite team or player.

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