AUSTIN, TX – Virtual reality is featured prominently at South By Southwest Sports this year, from using it to better train athletes with Oculus Rift to how it could transform the fan experience watching basketball, football and hockey at home.
Yes, hockey, the most problematic of televised sports. The live experience is unmatched – find even the most casual hockey fan, and they’ll tell you how the arena vibe totally blows away the product on TV.
The gap has closed a bit with the advent of high definition and the potential for 3-D. But just because you can follow the puck better doesn’t mean you feel like you’re at the game.
Which is where virtual reality comes in.
The NHL had its first successful test of a 360-degree virtual reality experience at its Stadium Series game between the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings last month, mounting cameras around the glass that filmed HD images in the round.
“It was wild. I could turn around as see a person sitting in back of me,” said NHL COO John Collins, who strapped on the goggles.
The test featured tech from NextVR and Samsung GALAXY Gear VR, which produced the “head-mounted displays” that streamed game footage hosted by a Los Angeles-based Cloud graphics company, OTOY. The footage could also be used on smart phones and tablets, as fans could navigate through the footage they’re streaming.
The 6K frame rate from OTOY was a ground-breaking success at the game, with plans to use a special light-field camera in the works for future tests.
It’s OTOY’s involvement that will be a game-changer: This footage wasn’t something from the archives – it was live streamed.
“That was the thing that was pretty cool about it: It was a live experience,” said Collins.
Picture this: You try to get tickets to a Stanley Cup Final game at your local arena, in your favorite seats. You fail, as it’s sold out. So instead, you settle into your well-worn couch to watch the game at home … from your favorite seats at the arena, through the virtual reality gear strapped to you. You’re immersed in a live, 360-degree environment that does everything but allow you to buy cotton candy from that vendor walking down the stairs.
“There’s going to be a technology soon where you’re going to be sitting at home and pick where you want to watch the game. You could be sitting at home and still watch it from your seat,” said Collins.
“Imagine if you can watch the game somewhere other than the blue line.”
The real innovation here: That watching NHL games would no longer be confined to the gaze of the big swinging camera at the red line. You could choose a seat behind the nets or in the corners and watch the game from that perspective.
You would also have the ability to automatically change your perspective on a play. One test the NHL ran at the Stadium Series was allowing viewers to go from a perspective in the stands to one directly above the goalie and the goal line.
Let’s say there’s a scramble at the net; in theory, something using the VR tech could zoom in, in real time, and see if the puck crossed the line. Or, if a goal is scored, they could zoom back to the crowd and experience being in a mass of people celebrating.
"Whether you're a fan living on the other side of the country, or you just couldn't snag a seat to the big game in your own backyard, virtual reality lets you be as close to the action as any ticket holder,” said Jules Urbach, CEO, OTOY.
Between this and player tracking, it’s clear that you’ll no longer have to be in the arena to see the totality of the play behind what’s shown on TV cameras.
But the great news for the NHL is that while new tech can get us closer to the in-arena experience, there’s still no replacing it. This won’t be Blu-Ray and home theaters taking down movie cinema chains.
At least we hope it isn’t…
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