Virtual reality continues to grow and expand in almost every part of our lives. Just a few years ago, it wasn’t even something that was talked about among average people. Today, you’ve got millions of tethered and standalone wireless headsets out there, and millions more premium mobile and basic mobile headsets. Almost everyone has at least heard of VR, and what’s now possible. So it should come as no surprise that new and exciting applications are being developed for VR technology, beyond the realm of gaming and basic entertainment.
For athletes and sports fans, VR technology is starting to be integrated into professional sports. VR is being used as a training tool, in practice and strategy sessions, in order to augment traditional training techniques in some cases. It is also believed that VR can offer fan experiences and augment live broadcasting of sporting events to bring the entertainment and viewership elements of sports into a whole new era.
VR for Athlete Training
One of the most innovative uses for VR technology in sports is in the area of athlete training. Many previous technological innovations have helped revolutionize training, coaching, officiating, and the games themselves (instant replay, data and analytics, viewing opponent’s games on tapes, etc.). So, it should come as no surprise that VR stand poised to do the same thing. While VR is no substitute for physical training, practices, skill drills, and all the rest, it can help to augment the kind of mental training that is hard to come by in the real world. Outside of scrimmages or practice games, a lot of the mental aspect of sports performance hasn’t been thoroughly trained or practiced. Just as much of what athletes do physically requires muscle memory, and knowing how to react in the moment, the mental component of sports requires a similar skill set. VR helps to create and hone that skill set, by allowing the kinds of experiences, visualizations, and mental practice that is hard to achieve by any other means (short of playing practice games for hours on end).
VR Athlete Training Example: Football
VR headsets and custom programs can be used for athlete training and education. One of the best examples is for helping football players visualize and learn plays. It’s much easier for players to understand, train, and build up muscle memory on how a play is supposed to be setup, how it’s supposed to look, and how to react, by actually seeing it in a virtual space. Players can visualize and look around in an immersive environment, know what the play will look like, and practice it over and over again. This is much easier than following a bunch of Xs and Os on a whiteboard or chalkboard and trying to make sense of it all.
Another benefit of this technology is it allows players to practice and train mentally, even if they’re unable to practice physically. We’re not just talking about injured players. Downtime during travel, at home, in a hotel, or wherever, when players aren’t on the field or in the gym, can be put to good use with VR training. It helps players to build up the mental muscle memory and connections to make plays and formations on the fieldwork, because they’ve run them a million times in VR space. Indeed, this is already being demonstrated in early pilot programs. NFL teams who have worked with VR firm STRIVR have found that player recollection of key concepts from VR training improved up to 30% over traditional methods. Since football often comes down to a game of inches, that kind of increase in recollection and cognition is huge.
VR Athlete Training Example: Winter Sports
VR can also serve as a partial substitute for training facilities in the case of some types of sports. Through more complex setups, it can help to simulate training that is otherwise not possible or cost prohibitive. An example of this is in the winter sports fields, such as skiing. Even the best skiers can’t always get to a training facility that has well-groomed slopes full of snow year-round. But that’s not always necessary, especially with technology. A computer-generated VR environment and a few other pieces of equipment can allow skiers to simulate skiing on snow, with full body movements, statistics, run times, and more, all in a virtual space. What’s more, an almost unlimited number of varied slope runs can be programmed, providing a level of variation in practice that no real-world ski slopes can offer.
VR Athlete Training Example: Baseball
MLB teams and other baseball teams have begun to deploy virtual reality setups for batting and pitching practice, too. They are much more affordable than traditional setups in the real world, and don’t require the kind of maintenance, machinery, supervision, or space. In addition, they offer built-in tracking, statistics, trends analyses, feedback, and more, since everything is already digital. This can provide insights and information that might take an actual batting or pitching coach hours or days to identify.
VR for Fans
Of course, the uses of VR technology in sports aren’t limited only to athletes. For sports fans, more and more options are coming on the market to help provide more complete and immersive fan experiences. They’re designed to take watching sports to the next level, putting you right in the middle of all the action while watching a game. Some of the technology still needs to be developed and more widely adopted, but the initial offerings have shown promise. The slate of products that are in the development pipeline are tantalizing, and could revolutionize and redefine what watching sports, as a fan, is all about.
Some Initial Swings and Misses
Unfortunately, some of the early outings in VR tech for sports fans have been more misses than hits. In the race to deploy new toys and technology, several franchises and sports have gone astray. Simply offering content in VR format, effectively the same television stream that you watch on a normal TV, isn’t going to move the chains, so to speak. The hard lessons of past technologies show that the right use cases for the technology are just as important as the content itself. Making a regular broadcast into a VR signal doesn’t take advantage of any of the benefits of VR – the head tracking, the immersion, and so on. For VR tech to stick and make sense in the sports viewing world, it’s going to need to offer content that takes full advantage of what’s unique and exciting about VR in the first place.
VR Implementations for Sports Fans
There are several implementations of VR technology for sports fans that are currently in development or the testing stage. Many of them center around providing a different viewership experience. By using VR camera rigs that are setup in strategic locations in an arena or around the field, users can experience the game as if they were truly there. Rather than making a plain old broadcast of a game into a VR signal, which doesn’t offer the user much, you can transport them to the equivalent of a VIP luxury box experience, or sitting courtside at a basketball game. You can put them in a fighter’s corner at a boxing match, riding with the jockey of their choice in a horse race, or sitting behind home plate at a baseball game. These improvements for viewing are a good start.
The true success of VR may come from later implementations that truly transport viewers into the action. How would you like to be standing in the huddle at a football game, or seeing things from the QB’s perspective? Or looking down the line at the pitcher’s mound – being able to turn left, turn right, look all around – and all of that happening in real-time – from the perspective of a batter ready to swing? VR’s benefits in the area of immersion and putting users into the action, effectively in place of the camera, needs to be considered for any implementation of VR tech in sports to be successful. We’re not quite there yet on the tech or costs to make this viable and widespread. But, as costs come down, and more and more people get headsets, there’s greater demand for good content. And as tech advances, the ability to have live VR streams from player’s helmets, or different “seating options” to watch the game in a VR stadium, will become more and more viable.
Whether or not VR really takes off from a fan standpoint in sports is an open question. It’s definitely already making an impact in player training, and providing new and more cost-effective options than traditional training methods. There’s tremendous promise for VR to revolutionize viewing sports, and there’s no question that sports fandom is a massive, lucrative industry financially. As the technology advances, and more and more becomes possible, we’re optimistic that creative and innovative ways to use VR tech in sports will continue to develop. If VR is to be a long-lasting, meaningful technology, rather than a fad, being embraced by sports fans would be a good place to start. And for that, the content needs to be well-crafted, thoughtful, and make use of all that VR has to offer. It may be a bit of an investment for professional sports teams, but has the potential to pay huge dividends, too.