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Tech: Virtual Reality Gets Real for Pro Sports in 2016

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After a frenzied year of investments, product launches and studio interest, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), the nation's largest consumer electronics trade group, is proclaiming 2016 the year of legitimacy for virtual reality. That should mean new and better viewing options for sports fans.

While QBs in college football in the NFL have been early fans of virtual reality systems as a way to hone their skills with extra reps and without risking injury, many see VR as a mean to provide remote fans 50-yard line viewing experience for a price – and with many amenities.

The NFL has already expressed interest in VR, without getting into specifics on planned uses or timeframes. When asked for additional info, a league spokesman said the NFL will discuss the topic further soon. Pioneer NextVR would not say if it has any dealings with the NFL, but it will announce new content partnerships early next month.

"Virtual reality is the next big entertainment platform," proclaimed Steve Koenig, senior director of market research for the CTA (formerly the Consumer Electronics Association). "2015 was the year of experimentation with VR be it 360 degree cameras and hardware." The CTA has been tracking the technology and vendor activity in the fast-growing industry segment from several perspectives (including, but far beyond sports).

For consumers, 2016 will be the first year they can get their hands on 'real' VR technology, he added.

Koenig credits frenetic activity this past year for the rapid emergence of VR, be it products from Samsung, Google (lens and cardboard viewers), Facebook's $2 billion purchase of VR vendor Oculus and initiatives  from Sony (Morpheus) with PlayStation. Add in the Steam VR entertainment platform and gear for gaming. Combined, these undertakings cover sports and more such as gaming, social media and streaming of live events to those that can't attend.

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Survey Says...

In fact, the CEA has just completed a survey of 15 creative organizations, including Hollywood studios, to judge their interest in VR as well as applications and challenges. "100% said VR is not a blip on the radar viewing it instead as a legitimate platform for investment," explain Koenig of the survey, which will be released next month at his group's annual Consumer Electronics mega-show in Las Vegas.

Those surveyed included creatives and producers across content arenas (from education to sports) and are looking to VR as the next big opportunity to connect with audiences, according to Koenig.

It's important to note that the investment arms of media giants and cableco/ISPs Comcast and Time Warner have already invested a combined $30.5 million in promising VR pioneer NextVR which has already amassed experience in delivering a VR viewing experience to remote fans.

In a video the NFL produced on the topic of VR, the narrator proclaimed that "the dream has become a reality," and that "virtual reality is set to explode on the global market."

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Real Life Virtual Reality

In a landmark event in the evolution of VR streaming, the NBA and partner Turner Sports delivered the first live U.S. sporting match to in virtual reality to fans just a few months ago using NextVR, whose gear and software captures and delivers live and on-demand virtual reality experiences, to deliver the live game and ring ceremony in high-definition virtual reality.

The live stream took place on opening night of the 2015-16 NBA season, when the Golden State Warriors took on the New Orleans Pelicans.

The VR streaming was the culmination of the NBA efforts dating back to experimenting with virtual reality during the 2013-14 NBA season when NextVR captured a Warriors game against the Denver Nuggets at Oracle Arena, according to the league. Last season, the NBA said it became the first U.S. professional sports league to bring virtual reality experiences to the public by capturing and distributing highlights of the NBA All-Star Game and State Farm All-Star Saturday Night.

How it Works—From Venue to Viewer

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Ok, NextVR locates one (or more) of its proprietary VR cameras in the venue (see photo). Unlike regular video cams used to shoot events, these units capture both live action image video and extract depth information to combine the venue with a sense of presence so that the consumer "is inside the game, not watching sports," explained NextVR Co-Founder David Cole.

All the content is transmitted over fiber-optic cable to a facility it sets up and staffs, that has a counterpart in TV broadcasts, for processing and loading onto content delivery networks (CDN) such as those of Akamai Technologies and Level 3 Communications.

The CDNs, Cole continued, deliver the VR stream to a NextVR portal that viewers at home equipped with proprietary software on VR headsets (such as those from pioneer Oculus) log into from a PC to watch the live (or on-demand) event.

The New Year will bring new things to customers from NextVR, including the ability to support pay-per-view (PPV) and subscription revenue models for those interested in having their events viewed by consumers. At present, Cole said, 99% of the content is free with sponsorships bringing in the bulk of revenue to leagues and/or teams. Viewers can expect to see VR headsets offered as low cost/no-cost add-ons to select new smartphones in 2016.

NextVR has already worked with sports leagues and broadcasters to deliver live events in VR streams to consumers. The list includes the NBA, NASCAR, the NHL, Major League Baseball and the Democratic Debate on CNN and the U.S. Open on Fox.

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The Best Seat in the House?

What NextVR has been working on in covering live events – such as the U.S. Open – seems far more attractive to sports fans than the usual generic description of the purported benefit of watching/being at a NFL game thanks to VR, while at home.

You've probably heard of how the NFL could set up VR cameras at midfield and give countless fans at home the ability to get the view from a single seat on the 50-yard-line, arguably the best seat in the stadium.

That's attractive to fans and those interested in boosting revenue. But what about the ability for VR viewers to move back and forth among/between virtual reality cameras located throughout a venue – in the case of the U.S. Open along the golf course?

This 'teleporting', as Cole terms it, would take event viewing next level. The fan at home could switch between the midfield seat cam - when the teams traveled down the field – and the end zone seat cam. What could be better than seeing a sporting event from different vantage points, depending on the action?

"It's not just about the seat you can buy, it's about the seat you can't buy," explained Cole in reference to the VR view from a second, third or fourth seat that fans could teleport between during a sporting event. He calls that augmenting virtual reality viewing. It also sounds like augmenting new revenue opportunities.

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Devil's Advocate

The concern has been raised over whether the availability of VR "views" would cut into or kill the sale of traditional in-venue ticket and related concession and merchandise sales. It's a fair one but I'm sure the VR industry and the sports business will work to strike a balance between the two options.

And what of the masses that watch games on pay-cable TV packages at home? Cole believes success with VR and sports depends on the ability to work with leagues, broadcasters and teams – concurrently on the save event if necessary.

The Bottom Line

If seeing is believing, as many advocates claim, VR should be the next entertainment platform that the CTA's survey of Hollywood creatives claims. Koening at the trade association firmly believes 2016 will be "the* *year of legitimacy" for virtual reality.

With the CTA study, new content partnership news from NextVR and details from the NFL on its view of VR all coming very soon, we won't have to wait too long to see.

Stay tuned!

Bob Wallace is a technology journalist with over 30 years of experience explaining how new services, apps, consumer electronic devices and video sources are reshaping the world of communications as we know it. Wallace has specific expertise in explaining how and why advances in technology, media and entertainment redefine the way football fans interact with the league, teams, players and each other. He's the Founder of Fast Forward Thinking LLC. **

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