Virtual reality’s ability to immerse viewers in new worlds has fueled talk of a fundamental change in how consumers experience media. While interest is growing in the emerging technology, and companies are racing to ship virtual reality headsets and content, one of the most popular areas of media consumption — sports — is unlikely to see major changes.
Some virtual reality experts say the experience of watching a sports game on television is simply too good, and won’t be surpassed by virtual reality technology anytime soon, if ever. TV broadcasts can rapidly switch from camera to camera, providing a mix of viewing angles and replays in high definition to give fans exactly what they need to see. Television also provides a social element, as it lends itself to friends gathering for communal viewings.
“I should never say never,” said Cliff Plumer, the president of Jaunt Studios, which has produced virtual reality content for sports leagues. “But right now, for the foreseeable future I can’t see competing with the broadcast coverage.”
Jaunt is investing in sports content but has narrowed its focus to sharing immersive experiences away from the games themselves — whether it’s in a team’s locker room or following a star athlete as they commute to work.
“TV sports production is an art,” said Tom Impallomeni of Virtually Live, which is exploring how to bring sports to virtual reality. “These TV companies have been producing sports for decades and it’s really refined.”
To give a fan a great virtual reality experience of being on the field would require a camera sitting on the middle of the playing field, which isn’t feasible. TV broadcast cameras can do their work positioned far from the field, and relying instead on powerful zoom lenses.
“To really make that content pop you have to be in the field of activity,” said Matt Smith, chief evangelist for the Silicon Valley company Anvato, which helps broadcasters stream live events. “Are we going to see the NFL in 2020 where it’s all a virtual reality experience? I don’t think so.”
Smith could foresee a league potentially using a camera that captures virtual reality footage by hovering just above the playing field. The motorized camera — attached to wires strung over the field — would shift its position throughout the game to remain close to the action. This footage would complement the traditional TV experience.
Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, says his life has turned frenetically busy since interest in virtual reality exploded. A major step for virtual reality was Facebook’s acquisition of the virtual reality company Oculus in March of 2014. The month before the acquisition Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg visited Bailenson’s lab.
Now Bailenson gets a steady stream of visitors interested in virtual reality’s potential to impact their businesses. His lab’s guest list has included NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
Bailenson told Silver he didn’t see virtual reality comparing to the quality of a TV broadcast of a basketball game within the next five years. Wearing a virtual reality headset for the length of a sporting event is too uncomfortable, according to Bailenson, who has never worn a headset more than 20 or 30 minutes straight.
“You’re right next to your hero and you’re in the middle of a play, but you don’t need to watch a whole game that way,” Bailenson said. “People underestimate how amazing camerawomen and cameramen are at telling you where to look and when to look.”