One of NextVR's cameras set up to broadcast a basketball match at the home of the Golden State Warriors in Los Angeles

VR in sports

Broadcasters and big leagues get in on the action.

Read more about all aspects of Virtual Reality technology

Rupert Murdoch calls live sport “the battering ram”. He thinks nothing is better at driving new broadcasting platforms.

His US Fox Innovation Lab and his majority-owned Sky television operation in Europe are already researching how competitions such as English Premier League (EPL) football might pummel the public into adopting - and paying a premium for - virtual reality.

Murdoch is not alone. The EPL itself and its most profitable club, Manchester United, are already talking to VR technology providers. Yet it is in the US that most serious trials have taken place so far.

The opening game of this year’s NBA basketball championships, Golden State Warriors vs New Orleans Pelicans, was distributed live in VR to owners of NextVR-compatible headsets. NextVR, one of the leading VR production houses, has also run experiments at NASCAR races and golf tournaments, and at United’s pre-season game against Barcelona last summer in Santa Clara.

We are some way from attaching cameras to sportsmen or women (motorsports being the most notable exception). Yet VR can offer “the best seats in the house” - or what the industry itself calls an “infinite seat”.

Ringside seats at a Vegas fight or courtside seats for the LA Lakers support five and six-figure prices in the physical world. The opportunity to place a VR rig in one of those and then sell it virtually thousands, if not millions, of times over has inevitably piqued promoters’ interest.

Closer to home, a VR subscription to your football team might allow you to toggle between different angles according to where the action is: the half-way line, behind either goal, and so on.

Meanwhile, VR sport is comparatively cheap to produce. What happens on the pitch does not change; you chiefly install a new set of camera rigs as appropriate. Gaming requires the construction of complex virtual worlds based on new development platforms; VR drama needs new ways of shooting and editing.

The main challenge is distribution. For live sports, “Buffering…” is a red card.

Existing broadband networks reportedly struggle when streaming flat 4k video at a 15.6Mbit/s data rate (based on trials run by Netflix). That is for a pixel count of 4096×2048px.

The minimum pixel count for live 4k VR is 12,288×6,144px - a nine-fold increase. Moreover, that’s for any form of content: sport involves a lot of movement and therefore the highest data  rates.

That is a big obstacle. However, with potentially billions in subscription sales on the other side, Murdoch and his fellow players are likely to breach it soon enough.

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