Sports leagues are betting on augmented reality, as virtual courtside seats can't match the real thing

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Attendees try out Realmax augmented reality (AR) glasses at the Realmax booth at CES 2020 at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 7, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Mario Tama

Sports leagues are turning to technology to bring fans closer to the game, even if they’re physically distant.

Facebook is exploring how better to mimic the National Basketball Association’s courtside seat in virtual reality. Major League Baseball is enhancing its stats to prepare more augmented reality offerings.  

The National Hockey League and Major League Soccer are both working on upgrading their VR and AR offerings, too.

But it’s not clear whether consumers are ready to to convert to a market that, before the pandemic, researchers estimated could help grow the global economy by $1.5 trillion.

“It’s still missing a couple of things to be successful,” said Nicolas Avila, who is chief technology officer at information technology and services company Globant.

VR still in the experimental phase

To keep fans engaged during the pandemic, sports leagues used more digital offerings, like virtual courtside seats and partnered with social media companies like Snapchat and Facebook to create AR experiences.

The experiences helped keep fans engaged, but sports clubs eventually want to make money from those experiences, especially VR, which totally immerses viewers in a 360-degree computer-generated scene.

Avila estimates that’s years away. He noted that devices supporting high-bandwidth 5G connectivity, which is necessary for high-definition mobile VR experiences, are just coming to market. Also, VR experiences are meant to emulate the real world, and today’s devices can’t meet those expectations.

“We’re still in the experimentation phase,” Avila said. “But just like out of the blue we had a rise in gaming experiences…the same thing will happen with VR.”

Although Facebook recently launched a new generation of Oculus VR devices and is discussing adding more VR NBA games next season, the company said better camera lenses would be required to truly replicate the courtside seat experience. 

Rob Shaw, Facebook’s head of Global Sports Media and League Partnerships, said the company is “still at the early stage of figuring out how we can create this better experience of sitting in that front row seat.”

Shaw said Facebook isn’t close to monetizing the VR offering and will make that a “priority once we feel good about what that experience is and having enough people walk through the virtual doors to experience it.”

Facebook wants to make its VR courtside games financially sustainable for the NBA, so they see it as an incremental revenue opportunity.

“We do believe that it’s a premium experience that’s afforded to the masses,” Shaw said. “There’s got to be ways that brands are going to want to activate in those types of experiences, and there may be a willingness to pay subscriptions as a result of that.”

At the same time, fans are still attending live games even in a pandemic, showing there will be demand for live events post Covid-19. It will be hard for VR to compete.

“We haven’t caught up with the alternative of an improved experience,” Avila added. “As long as you’re competing with going to watch a game that you can go watch – it’s never going to be the same.”

Attendees wearing RealMax 100 Augmented Reality glasses grasp at objects in an AR game, on the last day of CES 2019, on January 11, 2019 at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images

The better of the realities

Tech experts believe AR experiences, which superimpose computer-generated images over real-world images, will come first.

Stuart Burden, a senior software engineer at digital business consultancy firm Nerdery in the AR space, points to the fact that users don’t need specialized hardware to get basic AR experiences — they’re available on iPhones and iPads today, for instance.

“Part of the reason for that is everyone having devices and people are investing in that.”

Burden recalled a demo of the NBA’s AR experience through its partnership with AR firm Magic Leap, which let fans watch highlights on multiple screens in their field of vision. Although Magic Leap failed to deliver the technology it promised and has undergone layoffs and restructuring, dedicated AR devices are still an area of interest for big tech companies, from Snap to Microsoft.

In particular, Avila sees Apple impacting the smart glasses market when it finally leaps in with its long-awaited product, rumored to be coming in 2023

“They don’t place a product unless they’re looking to make it part of your life,” Avila said. “In a way, I see them closer to Siri – they won’t be there unless you call them.”

Source: MLB

MLB preparing for AR glasses 

If fans do embrace AR glasses, MLB will be ready: The league is monitoring how Apple develops the devices as it wants to leverage its Hawk-Eye stats tracking and convert the information into AR experiences. 

Also, it envisions using various camera angles to create live strike zones feeds for fans in stadiums using its partnership with Google to store cloud data it needs for AR presentations. 

“We would love to see a market leader emerge that demonstrates that experience from a platform perspective, and then we can bring that content and all of the rich data and analytics,” said Jason Gaedtke, MLB chief technology officer. “We can humanize the technology a little bit.”

MLB released a demo in 2017 at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference that showed the ability to overlay its stats and analytics for AR showings and sees potential. 

“There’s still a ton of interesting use cases that we’re excited about down the road,” said Johnny Wey, MLB’s senior vice president of client software engineering. “What we’re trying to do is set ourselves up for when these things become really significant in people’s lives. It’s not quite there yet.”

Avila said artificial intelligence advancements over the next few years would help enrich AR offerings. In five years, he said tech companies should better understand how to “find the place for these technologies.”

“But most of the things we envision over the next five years are probably not what’s going to end up happening because I think we’re going to learn a lot over the next two years of what makes an impact for a consumer,” he said.

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