VR’s Sports Invasion is Coming: Part 2

This is Part 2 of Seth’s look into VR and sports. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.

The Gear

Before we dive in too much further, let’s take a quick look at the different rigs in the VR marketplace .

  • Oculus Rift: Arriving 2016, Q1. The Rift plugs in to a computer’s DVI and USB ports. The latest version, the dev kit Crescent Bay, sells for $350. Oculus VR CEO Palmer Luckey estimates a $200-$400 cost. Microsoft and Oculus recently announced the Rift will ship with an Xbox One controller.
  • Samsung Gear VR: Already available, this is a device powered by the Oculus Rift dev kit and uses a Samsung Galaxy phone, either a Note 4 or a Galaxy S6. The mobile device slots in front of the lenses, into a Micro USB dock and uses Super AMOLED display as the screen. It sells for $199, and of course the phone is needed to view content, which can be found on Samsung’s Milk VR service.
  • Project Morpheus: Arriving 2016, Q2. The price is rumored to cost around $400-450, but his is only a rumor.
  • HTC Vive: Arriving 2015, Q4. The Vive plugs into PC and works with Steam’s library of games.
  • Carl Zeiss VR One: Already available and listed for $129, the Zeiss VR One accomodates the iPhone 6, Samsung Galaxy S4, S5, S6, Nexus 5 and LG-G3 smartphones. It also supports apps available from Google Play and the Apple Store.
  • Avegant Glyph: Arriving 2015, Q3. This rig is limited to 45 degrees field of view, but it also is said to reduce motion sickness and eye fatigue. It fits like headphones and the screen pulls down in front of your face. The cost is $499.
  • Google Cardboard: Our own Bradley Woodrum introduced you to this low-cost VR option back in December. Pop a smartphone into the cardboard container and bam, it’s VR time. As Wareable wrote, smartphones contain all the necessary gyroscopic sensors and positioning systems to accurately track head movements.


The most anticipated facet of VR in sports is how it will impact the way we view live sporting events. The NBA is an early adopter in VR broadcasts. The Association launched global marketing efforts years ago to establish new fanbases. While its efforts have succeeded, it’s left international fans, which can only watch games on television, hungry for an in-game experience. Fans in China and India will likely never go to a game. But what if they could in 2016? What if they could hear the squeaky sneakers, scan the jerseys hanging on the rafters and glance up at the scoreboard to see how many fouls Dwight Howard has? This is what the NBA wants to offer.

“When the day comes that 100 million or a billion people from mainland China can feel like they’re attending a Houston Rockets game courtside, that’s the dream. That’s the holy grail,” said Jeff Marsilio, the NBA’s associate vice president of global media distribution, in an interview with Fast Company. “That’s what we’re working toward.”

That work includes a partnership with Samsung’s Milk VR network. Marsilio hypothesized about the possibilities: offering perspectives from courtside during games, mid-court during team practices, in the locker room before a game, and maybe even sitting at the table with on-air commentators.

And while it may sound too good to be true initially, these are ideas that not only the NBA, but the NFL, MLB and NHL are all bouncing around.

In the conference room of an open-spaced, light-filled office in Laguna Beach, Calif., Brad Allen, executive chairman of NextVR, showed me the future. After popping his smartphone in to a Samsung Gear VR headset and helped strap it to my face, he rolled his company’s demo. I hovered above the ice during an Anaheim Ducks game at the Honda Center. I stood behind the pit crew of a Nascar event as they frantically worked to change tires and fuel up as fast as possible. When I turned around I saw the race’s leaderboard. With a 180 degree turn, I went from being on the track to a broadcast studio, and back. A goalie tracked down a ball right in front of me that went out of bounds as I looked up at him from the soccer pitch.

NextVR is a six-year-old company born to broadcast 3D television. Its founders worked with ESPN, TNT and in Hollywood. Co-founders DJ Roller shot the first live 3D sports broadcast at the 2007 NBA All-Star game and David Cole designed the first 3D HD video cameras, which were used in the blockbuster Avatar. They use Hollywood-level cameras that capture in 6K, are based on NextVR’s own compression technology, and can transmit in 4K — allowing live streaming VR on the internet. It all seems sort of Pied Piperish, sans Erlich Bachman’s bong.

In addition to its compression technology, what separates NextVR is its hardware. The cameras. Six RED Epic Dragon cameras operating form a rig to capture with each of three pairs of cameras capturing the stereoscopic image in front of them. The footage is combined with the NextVR software to produce a 360-degree composite video.


But the killer tech to live VR streaming is light field photography. Light field cameras capture information about the intensity of the light in a scene and the direction the light rays are traveling in space. NextVR announced its voyage into this awesomeness in March, which ideally, would allow the viewer to alter their point of view within the video, in any direction, with six degrees of freedom. It heightens the viewers sense of immersion. Want a better angle on a play happening on the other side from your current view point? You’ve got it. NextVR’s patented approach, which the company has researched and developed for three years, creates a 3D geometric model of the scene. No stitching of images needed, a rarity among VR content producers.

“Live transmission is really the killer app for virtual reality – enabling viewers to witness sporting events as they happen, live in VR and from locations beyond a front row seat ” said DJ Roller, co-founder of NextVR.


Experiencing VR for yourself is a must. While the cool factor is off the charts, what I experienced were just demos. The future Allen showed me – the future that filled me with more excitement than Charlie about to enter Willy Wonka’s factory – is about to become the present.

Allen painted a picture of being at a game. I get to choose my seat, whether it’s front row, behind home plate or behind an end zone. When I look behind me, I have access to my social media feeds. I can enter a team’s store and buy merchandise. My friends list shows me if my buddies are online, and if they’re watching the game. If there’s a few, we can create a luxury box and watch the game together. I can scroll through game stats, player stats and season stats. I really want to listen to Vin Scully call this game, so I include the broadcast overlay. In the bottom of the ninth with the Dodgers down a run and the bases loaded, I can turn off the broadcast and listen to, and become one of, the rabid fans.

It’s the ultimate second screen experience. You just don’t need the actual second screen.

Leagues are preparing how to implement VR into broadcasts, with the goal of enhancing fan engagement, Allen said. And he’d know. NextVR is working with leagues to develop best practices.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, NextVR has already tested its tech with the NBA, NHL and MLB. The company partnered with Fox Sports to deliver a live stream VR experience with multi-camera coverage of golf’s U.S. Open. Earlier in the year NextVR’s cameras grabbed footage in the pit of the Nascar Spring Cup Series in addition to actual racing, which Fox broadcasts. And as Road To VR reported in April, Fox boss Robert Murdoch reviewed NextVR’s content and apparently came away impressed, considering Fox’s progressive partnership with NextVR and testing of VR broadcasting abilities, like the U.S. Open.

“Our ongoing efforts with NextVR are exactly the kind of relationships we are exploring with our new Fox Lab platform,” John Entz, president of production at Fox Sports, in a statement. “Virtual reality is most certainly delivering a new level of excitement to next-generation production possibilities, and it will be great to gauge the reactions of the audiences who get to sample it at the U.S. Open.”

Peter Guber, Mandalay Entertainment CEO and co-owner of the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Dodgers, put a few million dollars worth of his chips in to the pot, and is betting on NextVR. A friend of Allen’s, Guber invested an undisclosed amount in to the company and will serve as chair on the advisory board.

“You don’t have a director telling you where to look,” he told Recode.net. “Individual capture devices can be put in separate places, and you can move from courtside to the owner’s suite, looking down.”

NextVR is building a platform through its portal and app to host a large amount of content, which would allow sports fans to view channels of live and on-demand programming. As Sportsvideo.org noted following an interview with David Cramer, senior vice president of corporate strategy, their portal could also be linked to rightsholders’ own apps and websites.

“Some of the content could be accessible to all Fox viewers, or there could be a PPV or subscription model for premium content,” Cramer said. “Then there is also the opportunity for sponsorship or advertising and even e-commerce.”

Pricing would likely be pay-per-view or subscription based through the NextVR app.

Broadcast rights aside, there are other ways to watch live events in the VR realm. In February, for the first time in two decades, AltspaceVR CEO Eric Romo watched the Super Bowl from his Northern California home with his dad and brother, who live in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, respectively.

“I got to hear Dad yell throw the damn ball over and over again,” Romo said.

Romo’s AltspaceVR hosted a Super Bowl viewing party for users with an Oculus Rift dev kit and an internet connection. Romo used the game to test his hardware, and beta testers sat in a gigantic virtual theater with the game shown on to a giant screen from NBC’s web stream. The playback of the game was synced so everyone viewed the same thing at the exact same time. For those that think VR is an isolating experience, AltpspaceVR’s vision disproves that notion. The company, which has raised $15.7 million in seed money, including a backing from Google Ventures, is banking on the social side of the technology.

Courtesy of AltspaceVR
Courtesy of AltspaceVR

“You look around and you’re in a crowded room full of people,” Romo said. If done right, it really feels like it. You’re with real humans and you feel a real connection with those people.”

AltspaceVR continues to hone it’s platform. Its beta access is now open on a continuous basis. Romo said that audio balancing continues to be a challenge. He doesn’t want viewers to have to shout over the audio on the screen.

“There’s a lot to learn about how to make our product a good experience,” Romo said.

On October 25th AltspaceVR will host a viewing party for the Buffalo Bills vs Jacksonville Jaguars in London, as the NFL tests its streaming capabilities. Other focuses for the company include making MLB.tv work and adding international sports for its clamoring global community.

Mary Spio, president of Next Galaxy, which develops content solutions and VR tech, echoed Allen and Romo. The former deep space engineer said she’s talked to a lot of sports teams and they’re most excited about selling tickets globally. It’s an untapped revenue stream. And as Romo highlighted the sociability of sports, Spio noted that there’s a reason Facebook bought Oculus – they saw that it can be a social thing.

“Most people think of games (when it comes to VR), but sports will completely eclipse what’s being done in games in virtual reality,” Spio said.

Next Galaxy put together a nifty promotional video, which I’ll embed, as it illustrates the possibilities of viewing live sports in VR.


Last month the Dallas Cowboys signed a deal to have their quarterbacks use a VR headset for training purposes. Not only will it allow them to improve their decision making, but it allows back ups and injured players, who would not take physical snaps during practice, to speed up learning, all the while complying with strict guidelines prohibiting time with NFL coaches. Not only would the quarterbacks watch film. They’d be doing the drill tape.

StriVR Labs, the company working with the Cowboys, just kicked off its business venture in early January. But as Fox Sports thoroughly profiled earlier this year, it started much earlier. Derek Belch, a former Stanford kicker and special teams grad assistant for the 2014 squad and Jeremy Bailenson, communications professor and founding director of the university’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, brainstormed how virtual reality could be applied in football, and ultimately, that became Belch’s thesis master’s thesis.

Belch turned Stanford’s practice field in to his personal lab in 2014, thanks to head football coach David Shaw. As Fox Sports reported:

Shaw, who knew Bailenson because the professor’s virtual reality lab was a stop on the tour his staff would show Stanford football recruits, agreed to set aside five minutes of practice each week on Monday nights. Offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren would scout out eight to 10 blitzes the upcoming opponent favored and scheme up some answers that the Cardinal scout team players would carry out as Belch and his video crew filmed. By Wednesdays, when the quarterbacks came into the football office, the Cardinal’s plan of attack was already loaded into VR and there for them once they strapped on the headsets. But the transition was hardly seamless.

The experiments lasted until November before Belch and his team worked out the kinks. Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan played so well in a 31-10 upset of No. 8 UCLA (16-for-19 in pass attempts, with two incomplete passes a result of drops) on November 28 that Bloomgren raved about the results and Shaw mandated all of his quarterbacks work with the StriVR Labs’s trainer weekly. Stanford stomped Maryland 45-21 in its bowl game and Belch turned his thesis in to a company. And ex-NFL quarterback and former Stanford teammate of Belch’s, Trent Edwards, wanted in. After two minutes with the headset, Edwards said he wanted to work with Belch.

Along with the Cowboys, StriVR will work with the Minnesota Vikings, and San Francisco 49’ers. Besides Stanford, StriVR has partnered with Arkansas, Auburn, Clemson, Vanderbilt and Dartmouth. Three college teams decided to work with Belch on the spot. And he said that no one has said no yet.

“Andrew Luck will probably be very interested in this,” Belch told me in April. And he was right. Luck told Indystar.com he thinks VR will have a big impact on football training.

In a space crowded with start-up companies trying to make a buck, Belch emphasized that StriVR Labs’s edge is that it knows football culture. It speaks the language that coaches speak. And that puts coaches at ease.

StriVR is working with its clients to develop customized content for the training programs, which will include more positions than just QB. It also plans to quicken its turnaround time from filming plays to editing the VR content for use, to one day. While Belch wouldn’t divulge the cameras used to film footage, he did say they’re using the Oculus Rift headset.

Ultimately, this is how StriVR Labs can benefit its clients, Belch emphasized. They are very sensitive to keeping the process simple, and not to overwhelm the player. They don’t want to strap bells and whistles to a player.

“If it doesn’t seem like a seamless, transparent experience, that athlete isn’t going to be interested,” Belch said. “We need to keep up with the speed of the athlete.”

Eon Sports VR is the other major player in this space. Current clients include UCLA, Ole Miss, Syracuse and Kansas, and CEO Brendan Reilly told Fortune that he expects to sign two NFL teams before the start of the 2015 season.

Reilly’s goal is to reach the youth with his technology, which can accelerate a player’s knowledge and experience without baking in the August sun at practices, increase repetitions and reduce mental mistakes.

“The VR experience is the same for an NFL player or a 10-year-old kid in Kansas,” Reilly said to Fortune.

Increasing VR abilities will only limit the risk, and likely amount, of injuries in youth and high school sports.

Bailenson agrees with Reilly’s vision. He said VR as a training tool holds unique value in amateur sports as those athletes don’t have fancy workout centers or daily full-team practices. In VR, digital scenes can be replicated for little to no cost. From the top athlete on the planet to a sandlot quarterback.

“Everyone can have access to ‘high end’ virtual training for very little cost,” Bailenson said.

But the virtual training doesn’t stop on the gridiron. Earlier this year, Silver told The Stanford Daily that, in addition to benefiting marketing outreach, VR could help in the training room.

“Players always tell us how they get better by repeating certain situations,” Silver said. “This could be ideal [in helping them elevate their games].”

And baseball? Jesse Wolfersberger shared his vision recently at The Hardball Times:

Imagine this scenario. You are a major league player who will face a pitcher for the first time tomorrow. You head to the batting cage, the team’s VR assistant loads up the program, and you slide on the headset. From your perspective, you are now standing in the batter’s box, in the stadium full of fans, looking at tomorrow’s starting pitcher on the mound. He winds up and throws, and it looks exactly like it will during the game tomorrow. You can virtually face that pitcher dozens of times, seeing every pitch in his arsenal at the exact speed and break that he throws it. Could there be any better preparation other than actually facing the pitcher himself?

Stay tuned for Part 3, discussing branding and marketing, coming soon.

(Header image via Sergey Golyonkin)

Seth loves baseball and anything with Sriracha in it. Follow him on Twitter @sethkeichline.

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