Watching sports in VR returns power to the viewer

This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.

Virtual reality is often thought of as the domain of couch-bound video game fans, but one of its more promising applications is watching sports. During the virtual reality live-stream of last month’s US Open golf tournament, for instance, you could see the game from directly behind Jordan Spieth as he teed off. Participants were so close that the head of his driver swung inches before their virtual noses. Obviously, virtual reality has the ability to put sports fans in the middle of the action, but it also gives them unprecedented control over how they see the game.

What the general public has come to expect from VR is immersion—the sensation of being in an exciting far-away place while sitting in a square dull room with cats crawling over you. Right now, virtual reality production companies and sports arenas are gearing up to bring this body-swapping sensation to every major sporting scene. Sports leagues that are already pursuing VR broadcasting include the NHL, NASCAR, Major League Baseball, the Premier League, and the NBA. If virtual reality proves to be the next big thing, sports will be ready.

“The typical words we hear are like, ‘Holy…!’ Whatever you want to say,” says Brad Allen of NextVR, an on-demand virtual reality broadcasting company from Laguna Beach, California. As a sports fan and the executive chairman of the 6 year-old company, he seems genuinely excited about the work they are doing. Their business model is focused on a tech dubbed “lens-to-lens,” which specializes in beaming athletic competitions of all varieties in crystal clear 6K resolution to VR viewing devices around the world.

Unlike traditional widescreen cameras that shoot from just one angle, NextVR’s multi-directional camera rigs capture the game stereoscopically in 360 degrees. This allows a home viewer who is donning a pair of VR goggles to swivel her head back and forth as the ball swings from one end of the court to the other, just like she was sitting court-side at a basketball game. The disembodied result is that “you don’t feel like you’re at home watching TV. You feel like you are there, wherever you look,” Allen says.

“You don’t feel like you’re at home watching TV. You feel like you are there, wherever you look.”

The beauty of this technology, aside from the cross-continental quantum leap, is that it wrests the control of the camera from cable channels. Watching sports in virtual reality requires a more active participation, which may rule out binge-watching football in a half-conscious state on the sofa. But the payoff is precision control over the viewing experience, so you can see what you want to see when you want to see it.

Similar to the cameras found in video games, cameras in virtual reality are interactive, and this goes well beyond swinging your head for a panoramic view. “When you have the goggles on, you can actually switch from one camera position to the next,” Allen tells me. For instance, in a basketball arena, you can switch between multiple viewpoints. If watching from the scorer’s table is too close for comfort, you can change the view to a more traditional top-down mid-court scene. If you’d rather see the game from behind the basket when your team is on offense, that’s an option, too.

The various cameras can be toggled with a simple button-press, but there is plenty of space for deeper functionality. Allen speaks of a slick user interface called “the back 180.” Since no one really cares about looking behind them at a sporting event, that area can be used to house applications like fantasy sports, player and team stats, and social media, so you don’t have to unmask from your VR goggles to rage-tweet about a blown call.

The methods for pulling these apps around in front of you and interacting them are still a work in progress. Allen believes eventually “there will be handheld controllers, something almost like a hologram, air typing,” but, for now, voice commands will have to do. Those sound like good ideas. Maybe they will even figure out how to drink a beer without spilling it while watching sports in VR too.