SAN JOSE, Calif. — A lot of virtual reality apps promise to give you a closer look at sporting events. Virtually Live wants to do one better by placing you right in the middle of the field of play — or at least, within a nearly real-time version of it.
The company is working on an app slated for a third quarter release that takes real-time data captured at live sports events and renders it into a 3-D environment. The result? A virtual recreation of a game with minimal delay that's continuously updated. And that means instead of watching the big game on your TV screen, you'll be able to don a VR headset for a player's eye view of the action.
One VR's most promising feature is its potential to give us a new view of sports. NextVR, for example, has enjoyed some success with broadcasting everything from basketball to boxing in virtual reality. That certainly boosts the "you are there" feel and gives you a look at games you can't get from conventional TV. But what Virtually Live has planned is a completely different immersive experience.
The company teamed up with Stats Inc., to do a trial broadcast of this year's Scottish League Cup final, placing cameras around Glasgow's Hampden Park to capture real-time data from the match between Hibernian and Ross County. That data was used to move avatars of both teams' players around a virtual version of Hampden Park with just a few seconds delay from the live action.
Virtually Live is also testing its technology with Formula E racing, using telemetry to chart the cars' progress and position along the race course. Users can jump from car to car, to see the different driver's perspectives on the race.
I had the chance to watch a replay of Virtually Live's Scottish League broadcast at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality expo this week — a month after the match took place, but it gave me a flavor of what fans can expect when they tune in for a live match. Had the match been going on live, the action taking place on the HTC Vive would have been delayed a several seconds behind the live match — a little longer than the delay that already occurs between live action and the television signal reaching your home.
My virtual trip to the Scottish League Cup final began outside a replica of Hampden Park, right down the stairway leading up to the stadium's gates. I could use the HTC Vive's controllers to move inside the stadium where the real action was taking place. (Though my walk-through was done using a Vive, Virtually Live CEO Tom Impallomeni told me the company's app will work on multiple VR platforms.)
I had my choice of seats inside the stadium, where I could watch digital avatars of the Hibs and Ross County players run around the pitch, their moves and location on the field recreating what was happening in the real match. And when I wanted to get even closer to the action, a click of the controller placed my right in the midst of a pack of players. Try that in real life, and security will soon be frog-marching you out of the stadium.
The on-field view is more than just a gimmick. I could click on players to bring up a box featuring their vital stats or turn my head to get a field-level view as the action passed me by. If the ball got too far away, I could press the controller's trigger and jump immediately to where it was on the pitch — a feature I'm betting some slow-footed defenders wouldn't mind having in real life.
When a virtual view of the match grew tiresome, I could jump to a luxury suite inside the stadium that included real video of the game I was watching virtually. That suite also featured a hologram area that focused on a square area of action centered around the ball. In Virtually Live's world, it turns out, there's more than one way to take in a game.
The experience isn't without a few hiccups. While the player avatars moved around the pitch smoothly — impressively so, considering they're being generated on the fly — watching virtual players can take some getting used to. Also, if you're put off by the Uncanny Valley effect, imagine what it's like staring at 22 expressionless faces — call it the Uncanny Gorge. At one point during my demo, Ross County scored a key goal, and the virtual players ran off to celebrate, their faces never registering any emotion. All in all, though, it's a pretty impressive experience, especially for an app that's several months away from going live.
Before its launch later this year, Virtually Live hopes to expand its offerings beyond soccer and motor sports. That includes "a couple of big-ticket U.S. sports," Impallomeni said, though nothing the company is ready to announce at this point.
Whether VR offerings like what Virtually Live is developing can take the place of live telecasts will depend on a lot of factors. But it certainly shows that sporting events are proving to be a fertile ground for VR firms looking for new ways to bring sports fans the action they love.