Virtual Reality to Revolutionize Sports Viewing Experience

#DigitalPPG is a recurring column by Charisse Lambert, a writer specializing in the convergence of sports, tech, and urban brand campaigns.

How we watch sports is about to change in a major way. And at the heart of that transformation is a familiar gaming technology—virtual reality. What was once seen as fantasy, VR technology has quickly entered the sports world, and is changing the way coaches conduct practice and train players. It is also enhancing the fan experience by allowing an all-access approach to fans’ favorite sports teams, enabling the masses to experience what only a limited number might otherwise enjoy.

STriVR Labs, which stands for Sports Training in Virtual Reality, is a leader in the sports VR space. The company’s client list includes at least six NFL teams and even more college teams, including Arkansas, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Clemson. Video is shot on a 360-degree camera cluster atop a lightweight tripod, which is placed alongside selected players in practice. The video is uploaded to a VR database, where it can be viewed through an Oculus Rift headset.

The benefits of using VR technology is not lost on many who play contact sports like football, where injuries are an inevitable part of the game and head trauma has become a part of the public conversation. Programs are venturing into virtual reality as a perfect step forward in the world of athletic training. Because the mind has no way of distinguishing between a real situation and one generated by the technology, it is the ideal means of supplementing work on the field, on the court, on the ice, to further a player’s skill development and knowledge of the game. What virtual reality brings to the table is the ability to let athletes practice without stepping on the field, increasing reps while minimizing injuries.

At present, virtual reality is a high-end product that comes at significant expense. But that will likely change—as soon as this year. In the same ways that the earliest high definition tech wasn’t yet completely streamlined when networks began to switch to HD, we are still in the infancy of VR and the headsets on the market have yet to be perfected. But as companies like Samsung develop smaller, more comfortable VR wearables, many predict that the technology will see a boom similar to that of HD in the early 2000s.

And as the price point drops, look for the interest from teams and leagues in monetizing virtual reality to continue to skyrocket. The NBA made history on opening night this season when it became the first major sports league to offer a live-streamed version of a game in virtual reality. NASCAR and the NFL both have been in experimental stages with using the technology to stream events. Recently, FOX Sports began collaborating with company NextVR to bring live VR coverage of the Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) matches. And there was even the recent announcement from CNET founder Halsey Minor of a virtual reality network launching in the second quarter of this year that will focus on sports and music events.

It’s still early, but I am calling it: Viewing live sports via virtual reality will be the next big breakthrough on the sports broadcasting landscape. Mark it.