Virtual reality the latest new high-tech way to watch sports

Virtual reality the latest new high-tech way to watch sports

Published Jun. 15, 2016 1:09 p.m. ET

NEW YORK (AP) Sports fans who own the right devices can follow the action at a major event this week in a new, high-tech way. If that sounds vaguely familiar, networks were embarking on similar experiments in 3-D half a decade ago.

Now virtual reality is the latest craze, and Fox Sports is offering VR streams from the U.S. Open at Oakmont. Some of the technology - and some of the people working behind the scenes - in VR come from those short-lived 3-D productions, which never caught on widely among television viewers at home. For the companies betting that VR will be different, part of the pitch for now is that it's not intended to supplant that high-definition broadcast on a giant flat screen TV audiences seem quite happy with.

''It's not meant to be and we're not producing it as a replacement,'' said David Nathanson, Fox Sports' head of business operations.

''Complementary'' is the buzzword for the time being. The idea is that fans will still mainly watch the event on their television sets, but they'll use VR for enhancements: game recaps, highlights of a particular play, features, brief forays into watching a certain portion of the action live.


As part of Fox's five-year deal with NextVR, cameras at Oakmont will be positioned at the ninth, 17th and 18th holes, with roving capability at the neighboring No. 10 and No. 12. There will also be pre-packaged video on demand, including footage of players on the practice range each morning, a narrated history of Oakmont, two-minute ''golf tips'' and features on each hole. The coverage is available through the NextVR app for Samsung Gear VR owners.

Virtual reality still faces some of the same challenges that hindered 3-D. Viewers need to buy special equipment to view the broadcast, and even once they do, they might decide they find the devices too inconvenient and cumbersome to wear regularly. The future of VR in general will likely depend on how much - and how quickly - both the price and the unwieldiness of the hardware decrease.

''Today the equipment is kind of like the original cellphone in a bulky briefcase,'' Nathanson said.

The other necessary technological advance is the quality of the picture. For now, there's a major tradeoff in the crispness of the image from HD to gain the sensation of watching from the front row.

Brad Allen, executive chairman of NextVR, said the motivation for cellphone manufacturers to invest in virtual reality will speed the process along, as they look to add functions that will lure customers to keep buying new devices.

''It's moving much faster than everybody, including ourselves, even anticipated, which is fantastic,'' Allen said.

The potential audience is still small for virtual reality, but for now Fox's motivations have little to do with the current number of viewers. Oculus has said that about 1 million people used the Gear VR in April for an average of 25 minutes per day.

Fox views its present VR investment as a head start of sorts if the technology does catch on. These broadcasts offer the opportunity to start to figure out how VR might work best. Where are cameras best placed? Do viewers want a producer to cut between shots as would happen on a traditional telecast? What's the role of graphics and commentary?

''We make no bones about the fact this is a learning experience for us,'' said Michael Davies, Fox Sports' senior vice president of field and technical operations. ''We don't say this is one of those things that's done and dusted and polished.''

The other value of a head start is that Fox will own a library of archived footage that will look even better once the technology improves. One potential future advance Davies believes would eventually attract many users is the ability not to just virtually attend the game, but to virtually sit next to someone far away. Childhood friends who live in different cities could replicate the experience of watching their hometown team together.

Still, there's enough buzz around VR at the moment that Lexus is sponsoring Fox's U.S. Open offerings.

''People are so interested in VR right now,'' Davies said. ''We've been promised VR for a long time along with flying cars and jet packs.''