2016 made clear that virtual reality is poised to become one of the largest trends in tech. With the release of consumer-level equipment like the HTC Vive and Samsung Gear VR, industry analysts predict that VR and AR will be a $120 billion industry by 2020. The technology is finding particular success by supplementing a much older and even larger industry - Sports.
VR is lauded for its ability to essentially transport the user into the digital realm. Wearing a head-mounted display and often haptic gloves or other gear, users can interact with a computer-generated world using natural physical motions and gestures. By necessity, therefore, every motion the user makes is perceived and recorded by the software driving the simulation.
This tangential effect is what makes virtual reality and sports such a natural fit. Sports thrive on data, as any devotee of player statistics already knows. A virtual reality sports simulation allows for a player’s performance to be analyzed and optimized to a heretofore impossible degree.
Pro Sports VR is Enterprise VR
Although mobile-based virtual reality gear is already very popular in the consumer market, higher-end equipment like the HTC Vive or Facebook’s Oculus Rift are still priced out of reach for all but hardcore enthusiasts. This is sure to change as consumer equipment comes down in price, and the major players are already working hard to accomplish just that. At this stage of the game, though, the true financial success in virtual reality is in enterprise.
Fortunately, professional sports are a $1.5 trillion global industry. The teams and franchises themselves are essentially large enterprises. The average NFL team directly employs well over 150 people, to say nothing of the countless stadium personnel, ticket vendors, sports reporters, and other support personnel.
The size of the sports industry and its importance in global culture means that the “love of the game” has been a primary driver in the development and adoption of technologies ranging from HDTV to advanced protective helmets.
What this means is that sports franchises are well-accustomed to experimenting with new technologies to help their athletes attain peak performance, as well as give their fans the best show possible. These organizations have the resources to spend on R&D into new products and techniques, and today virtual reality sports training is in use by multiple professional teams.
Use Case: Eon Sports Virtual Reality Sports Training
One of the most successful virtual reality sports training application developers is Eon Sports. Multiple college and professional sports teams have signed on to use Eon’s products since the firm’s inception in 2013. Some of their highest profile clients and investors include the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the New England Patriots, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Dallas Cowboys.
The basic philosophy behind Eon’s virtual reality sports simulators echoes the core promise of VR to make the impossible a reality. By leveraging advanced player and game data, the Eon simulations allow players to practice against virtual opponents whose behavior and playing style tightly mimics that of their actual opponents. In essence, players can enjoy a “trial run” before a game, playing against virtual simulacra of a team days before the real-life match.
Eon’s professional-level virtual reality sports application involves the use of a green screen and physical equipment like baseball bats, in addition to a head-mounted display. The green screen allows coaches, analysts, and other team support personnel to see what the player sees so that they can offer the same type of concrete advice and guidance they could in a real-world training environment. The physical sports equipment used means players can play in the simulated world exactly as they would in real life, without the mental or physical adjustments that might be needed by a more conventional controller.
The firm also offers a home version of their application, which uses a custom-developed mobile-based head mounted display called the SIDEKIQ that includes eye tracking technology. Although this version of the software certainly does not offer the same level of training benefit, it has nonetheless found success among sports enthusiasts looking to dip their toe into the world of virtual reality and sports.
Use Case: NextVR Virtual Reality Sports Spectating
Of course, many fans are more than content to watch sports rather than train to play them. Tickets are expensive, though, and attending away games often requires a plane ticket and a hotel room. Virtual reality excels at transporting people to far-away places, though, and startup NextVR has successfully leveraged the technology to let fans cheer their team on from the best seats in the stadium without ever leaving home.
The VR development firm has patented a suite of technologies that relate to sophisticated 360° cameras that can capture an event in 3D and HD. Fans use their home virtual reality equipment (currently only Samsung Gear VR is supported) to watch games in a fully immersive VR world.
NextVR made a media splash early in the game, and currently holds a contract with Fox Sports as the exclusive virtual reality broadcaster for all events covered by the network.
The firm recently brought in $30.5 million in new funding, including contributions from Comcast and Time Warner. NextVR has been enormously successful in bringing traditional sports broadcasting into the virtual world, and it seems likely they will be a strong voice in the industry for a long time to come.
Use Case: Virtually Live Offers an Alternate Approach
The key phrase in NextVR’s success, though, is “traditional sports broadcasting”. NextVR is essentially producing 360° videos, not true virtual environments. Although the line between the two is sometimes blurry, especially to the mass market and media, there are certain limitations in 360° videos that become immediately obvious when compared to a virtual reality sports simulation.
A competitor of NextVR called Virtually Live would like to make those differences clear to everyone. Virtually Live is also in the business of streaming sporting events, but takes a dramatically different approach. Where NextVR places 360° cameras in seats, giving remote spectators a live view of the event from the exact viewpoint of the camera, Virtually Live instead uses a network of cameras around the stadium to create a complete picture of the game from every angle. Their proprietary software uses this data to generate a true virtual environment, which viewers can freely move through and explore.
Since the end product is composed of computer graphics and not live video, the effect is something like playing a video game. The action, however, is completely synced to the real-life movements of the players and the ball, and the ability to closely inspect moments in the game, rewinding and replaying them as needed, is a delight.
Virtually Live has not gained as much of a foothold in the market as NextVR, and they do not currently hold any contracts with major sports leagues. However, the company has enjoyed a good deal of press for their innovative take on virtual reality and sports, and they recently streamed the FIA Formula E Championship car race.
Use Case: We:eX Fan Jersey Adds Haptics to Virtual Reality Sports
Earlier in 2016, wearables firm We:eX entered the sporting industry with a dramatic new way to bring sports fans closer to their favorite teams. The Fan Jersey is a Bluetooth-equipped sports jersey that pairs to a dedicated smartphone app. During a game, the app feeds the Fan Jersey data on players’ actions. The shirt is equipped with haptics and can vibrate and jerk as players take hits, fumble the ball, or execute great plays.
The Fan Jersey made its debut at the 2016 Super Bowl 50, and it is not difficult to imagine a future in which all virtual reality sports applications of all types utilize this type of smart garment to enhance the immersion and effectiveness of the simulation. Haptics on this scale are currently missing from the major consumer-level virtual reality offerings. Sports are as much about physical sensations as they are about visuals and sound, and the Fan Shirt or its descendants could bring virtual reality sports to an entirely new level.
Use Case: The Many Contenders for the Virtual Reality Fitness Crown
Almost as large as the sports industry is fitness. The industry is estimated by analysts such as the Global Wellness Institute to have generated $446.40 billion dollars in 2014, including revenue from health clubs and gyms as well as home products. Virtual reality has obvious applications in the fitness space, as a superior alternative to the old standby of the gym TV.
Virtual reality development firms are well-aware of the potential of VR fitness products, and there are a large number of contenders in the space. Holodia, Widerun, and Runtastic take the obvious tactic of equipping gym visitors with a commercially available VR headset and specialized software. By tying the simulation to the speed and intensity reported by the exercise machine, users can enjoy biking through a countryside on an exercise bike, or rowing through the canals of Venice on a rowing machine.
At least one firm, though, has chosen a dramatically different approach. German company ICAROS GmbH has developed an entirely new exercise machine, one that is designed from the ground up to be used in tandem with a virtual reality headset. Users of the ICAROS lay prone on a metal rack that can pivot and tilt in response to muscle movements.
When paired with the ICAROS software, which is compatible with either Oculus Rift or Samsung Gear VR head-mounted displays, gym-goers are transported high above a mountain range, ocean, or other environment, where they can fly freely through the air. The machine itself acts as a controller for the game, elevating a solid full-body workout to an exhilarating experience that is only made possible through the power of virtual reality.
How AppReal-VR Can Help
There are a great many companies entering the virtual reality sports market, but the field is still brand-new and wide open. Countless opportunities await those with the right ideas and the right execution. AppReal-VR is an experienced VR development house that specializes in bringing those ideas to fruition.
The AppReal-VR management team has many years of experience and under its leadership the company has developed many AR/VR projects. Using an agile development methodology, AppReal-VR works in close tandem with clients during every step of the production process to ensure the final product meets and exceeds their needs.
Yariv Levski, CEO of AppReal-VR, commented on the connection between virtual reality and sports.
"As one of the world leaders in software development for AR and VR, we deal with many startups and ventures that are pre-launch or not yet familiar with the space. Sports is certainly one of the most popular verticals for VR. We believe that there is a great overlap between the VR audience and sports fans. Combine that with fans’ willingness to pay a premium price for a premium experience, and sports is one of the best verticals to focus on when launching a new VR venture or product."
AppReal’s strengths are wide-ranging, and the firm has experience not only in virtual reality, but also in mobile development, social applications and eCommerce. The convergence of these technologies is where the true opportunities of the future lie, and a company like AppReal is well-equipped to leverage them.