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Super Bowl in Your Face: How VR Is Changing Sports

SAN FRANCISCO — The best seat at the big game isn't anywhere in the stadium. It's on your couch where multiple TV cameras and replays can show you all the action that people at the game may not have seen. The makers of virtual reality software and hardware think they can do TV one better, using VR to bring fans even closer to the action.

"The application of virtual reality to sports is going to be, pardon the pun a game changer," said David Cramer, executive vice president of corporate strategy for NextVR. "It redefines what the the best seat in the house is and lets you be at a sporting event without having to travel there."

To illustrate that point, Cramer and NextVR were at the NFL Experience, a sprawling week-long event taking over San Francisco's Moscone Center in the build-up to Super Bowl 50. NextVR is hosting a virtual reality booth where fans can strap on Samsung Gear VR headsets and find themselves with a 360-degree view from the sidelines of an NFL game.

NextVR dispatched crews to three NFL regular season games to create a series of VR videos that get you close to the action. Each crew used five to six camera rigs to get you right up to where even broadcast TV cameras fear to tread, with full 360-degree views of the stadium as you swivel your head.

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It's an immersive experience that transports you right to the game, as I learned after slipping on a Gear VR and spending a few minutes at the NFL Experience show floor virtually attending a football game. From my view on the sideline of Miami's Sun Life Stadium, I could watch a New England Patriots cornerback tip a ball away that otherwise would have landed in the mitts of a Dolphins receiver.

Another video placed me smack dab in the center of the player introductions of a Baltimore Ravens game, giving me a clear glimpse at just how terrifying gigantic NFL players in their full gear can be. These are not the sort of perspectives you're going to get just by watching the game on television.

And that's a large part of the potential for virtual reality and sports. NextVR's Cramer notes that the format is ideal for delivering highlight packages from games and could even broadcast live sporting events down the road.

While I was getting an up-close look at NFL action courtesy of NextVR, Microsoft was previewing its own vision for how new technology will change the way we watch sports. The tech giant, which already partners with the NFL by supplying modified Surface tablets so that teams can review aerial photos of plays, pushed out a concept video showing what its HoloLens augmented reality glasses can add to an NFL broadcast. In Microsoft's vision, you'll be able to use its headset to do everything from summon up player stats to get different views of replays.

Those are two different approaches to bringing a virtual element to watching sports. NextVR's software immerses you in the middle of the action, while the features Microsoft is touting would augment an existing broadcast -- turning your headset into a second-screen device, in essence. Both examples have their appeal, and illustrate just how much potential there is to add new ways for enjoying sports through VR.

Several hurdles remain before we're turning away from HD TVs to put on our VR headsets the next time a big game rolls around. For starters, there just aren't that many headsets out in the wild. The Gear VR is available now, but other headsets aren't expected until later this year. Microsoft's HoloLens isn't slated to be out until later this quarter, and then only to developers at a steep price tag of $3,000. For that kind of money, I'll stick to watching the game on TV for now.

Since sports leagues also keep a tight control over who has the rights to show even highlights of their games, securing those rights on VR devices isn't an insignificant matter, either. To that end, NextVR has been working with a number of different leagues and broadcasters. Besides the NFL, NextVR has worked with the Turner Sports and the National Basketball Association to live-stream a basketball in virtual reality, and it's also teaming up with Fox on boxing coverage, after working with the network on golf and NASCAR projects.

You can experience the fruits of NextVR's labors yourself if you have a Gear VR headset; the company's app is available from the Oculus Store, and Cramer points out that NextVR is platform-agnostic, meaning the company expects to makes its software available to any VR platform that launches in 2016.

There's one particular highlight that Cramer enjoys from a hockey game that NextVR captured in virtual reality. NextVR's cameras happened to be right by the boards where a particularly teeth-rattling body check took place. "I always know when people [watching the highlights on a VR headset] get to that part," he says.