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Virtual Reality Becoming Reality For Major Sports Leagues

Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports

If you're firmly entrenched in the camp of sports fans who believe that there's quite simply "nothing like being there" when it comes to your favorite sports events, keep in mind that "being there" is a term that might need to be redefined in the very near future. Virtual reality has been around for a while now and is a buzzword many might be familiar with. But VR, as it's called, to this point has largely existed and thrived only among gaming communities and as a training tool for militaries and police organizations.

However, certain companies such as NextVR, a California-based virtual reality technology company, are preparing to usher in a new era of live event consumption for the masses through their live broadcast virtual reality technology - and it's coming much sooner than you think. 

"Not everybody's going to get to climb Mount Everest, or maybe even sit courtside at a game," NextVR co-founder DJ Roller said in an interview conducted while the NextVR team were attending meetings in the New York area. "Transporting them there is not something we're going to be able to do in the future, it's something we can do right now." 

NextVR co-founders, Roller and Dave Cole, founded NextVR in 2009. Their original mission was to produce stereoscopic 3D broadcasts and Roller himself was involved with filming the first NBA All-Star Game in 3D in 2007. However, the company decided to veer toward virtual reality broadcasting in 2012 and haven't looked back since. 

"Everything we've done is built on top of a live broadcast platform for 3D," Cole said. "Then we have core technology that fundamentally makes you feel like you're there to put it in the simplest terms. It ensures that the experience is as close to real as possible."

In January of this year, NextVR completed the first live broadcast of a virtual reality experience ever, which in layman's terms means that they were able to visually and aurally transport a reporter from Engadget, who was at his home in Michigan, to a beach in Laguna Beach, California using their technology.

Basically, once the reporter put on his Samsung Gear VR virtual reality headset (which is currently available to anyone), and uploaded NextVR's program on his Samsung Note 4 (currently the only VR-compatible phone) he was able to look around 180 degrees in a 3D environment and observe exactly what an arrangement of NextVR's cameras were shooting at that precise moment on a beach almost two thousand miles away. 

As Roller said, live sports are ready to go too. The NextVR team were able to do the exact same thing roughly a month later at the NHL's outdoor game at Levi's Stadium in California. NextVR had their camera rigs at ice level recording the action, while upstairs in the owners box they were showing team executives a streaming, 3D 180-degree broadcast from those cameras. They essentially were able to teleport to ice level to watch the game, and that's exactly what NextVR envisions every sports fan around the world will be able to do in the very near future. 

"It was actually set up in exactly the same way as if we had been streaming it to somebody in China," Roller said of the live broadcast. "It was basically an internal test, but it's the same infrastructure." 

So the technology works here and it theoretically works across the globe, the only question is how long it might be before you can sit on your couch and teleport to ice level to watch your favorite team play?

"There's some sophistication at this point around some of the leagues, they've seen enough to know that their product is going to be very valuable in VR," NextVR's executive chairman Brad Allen said. "There are some early movers who are going to be quick to market with the product because they've seen it, they've tested it, and they're beyond the tests and have seen that their product is going to be extremely extremely valuable in VR. It just works."

Among the leagues that seem to be most eager to embrace the VR technology NextVR is offering are the NHL and the NBA. In addition to the NHL game shot by NextVR, NextVR also shot the NBA's summer league game in Rio De Janiero this past summer. The NFL has started to embrace the possibility of using virtual reality to help quarterbacks study opposing defenses in a realistic environment but aren't yet in the discussion for live broadcasting in VR.

Both the NBA and the NHL however, appear to be quite smitten with the technology and the prospects. 

"One of the owners of the team came up to me and said 'I own the team and I can't even buy a ticket for this seat,'" Allen said. Another one of the CEO's told Allen that after he tried it he "couldn't stop thinking about it."

Even though the owners are sold, major questions about the interest of the general public have circled around for quite some time. Even more importantly than that, currently the technology required to view a VR experience is very isolating and expensive, not exactly a perfect fit for the often communal events that sports games tend to be. 

Roller however thinks the VR experience lends itself perfectly to any atmosphere.

"You might be at the bar or wherever with your buddies and somebody scores a touchdown, it might be something where everybody goes down on the field and watches and then you go back to talking about it and watching it on the TV," Roller explained. "You might go to the sporting event and come back and watch the highlights at home."

If that's not "communal" enough, Roller said you could even have your own virtual "club box," where you can invite your friends into your virtual space and watch the game with each other. 

Another current concern with VR technologies is that there aren't many options on the market right now, but that's something that seems certain to change very soon. Many major companies such as Microsoft, HTC, Apple and Sony are all in the process of developing their own VR gear to compete with Samsung.

Not to mention the fact that the technology will drastically change from its currently "clunky" headset to a much sleeker design very soon. NextVR don't concern themselves with the hardware side of things as they're "hardware agnostic," meaning their software works on any possible design. Still, the newer hardware will obviously propel NextVR's live broadcast technology into the consumers' hands at an even quicker rate. 

"There aren't that many of the headsets out there, and these headsets resemble (...) those brick cell phones," Allen said. "They're going to get smaller and smaller, they're going to become glasses, they're going to be everywhere."

While there will be skeptics and pitfalls as there always are with new technologies, most fans that have encountered the technology are excited about it as a complement to, not a replacement of, them going to games and enjoying the in-person experience.

"Fans that are season ticket holders were going, 'wow, maybe this can be in addition to my season ticket when I can't come I can have this experience," Roller said.

Roller also added, as most sports fans already know all too well, "Nothing replaces being there and having beer spilled on your shoes."

Maybe not yet, but sooner than you think.

More from Bryan? You can email him or find him on Twitter @bcaltman.



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