Omar Khan


Virtual reality. It’s a term that’s being thrown around constantly these days, as the technology—or basic forms of it, at least—becomes more advanced and more prevalent. While perhaps not as pervasive or popular among the public as augmented reality, which has invaded our lives via the explosion of Pokémon Go, it’s apparent when viewing the biggest trends at Cannes that VR has truly arrived, both as a platform and a movement. Here Fjord Chaotic R&D’s VP of Virtual Reality experiences, Omar Khan, looks at how VR is changing sports we know it.

With sports reaching the pinnacle of international interest this August, the players in VR aren’t far behind. NBC, for example, is set to broadcast 85 hours from Brazil in virtual reality. And the medium isn’t only being used to create a more amazing viewing experience. It’s also being used to help train some of the world’s greatest athletes. Here, we’ll dig into how VR is integrating itself into sports on multiple levels – but first, we need to clarify one thing:

In many cases, what’s being dubbed “virtual reality” or “VR” isn’t actually virtual reality or VR—at least in the true sense.

“It’s virtual reality in the sense that you have a headset on, but you and I both know that’s not VR,” says Fjord Chaotic R&D Creative Technologist Matthew Murray. “It’s using the VR equipment, but it’s not interactive; it’s passive. In the true aesthetic, it’s not virtual reality—it’s immersive, 360 video.”

In other words, while the technology is being used to place players and fans in a situation, it doesn’t yet give them the ability to affect the situation. We’ll get into the future of the technology and the ways it could (and probably will) be used eventually, but for now let’s dive into the way the admittedly awesome technology is being used now.

For consistency and clarity’s sake, we’ll still use the terms VR and virtual reality, as that’s what it’s being commonly referred to.

For the players


Athletes from unexpected places are foraying into the technology in order to gain a competitive edge. Take Gwen Jorgensen, a world champion triathlete, who hired former team leader of Oculus, Joe Chen, to turn the grueling course in Rio into virtual reality. The tech takes her on the bike course and allows Jorgensen to visualize and experience each of the turns, hills, and movements necessary to conquer the biking section of the competition. Chen believes that in the near future VR technology will be combined with active simulations to almost 100% recreate the experience of racing a bicycle, with all of its decelerations and g-forces.

But it’s not just athletics that are utilizing the tech.

Stanford football, for example, invested in virtual reality as a means of training its quarterbacks, using headsets to give them the sensation of being on the field and helping them better read defenses and blitzes. Meanwhile, coaches are able to get in the heads of their quarterbacks and explore their perspective. The integration of real live video with virtual reality allows the quarterbacks, from starter to fifth-string, to go through plays dozens of times. And on the game-improvement front, it doesn’t just work as well as film—it works better. The main man behind the tech, Jeremy Bailenson, has discovered that users retain 33% more from VR than standard video. In March 2015, Fox Sports reported the following stats after the training method was implemented:

Kevin Hogan went from 64 percent of his passes up to 76 percent after the Stanford quarterback started using this headset regularly for about 20 minutes before games…[and] went from averaging 24 points a game to 38 in those final three games. The team finished the year scoring on every one of its last 27 trips to the Red Zone when their first two units were on the field, [when the team] was scoring just around 50 percent inside the 20-yard-line before that.

The reality might be virtual, but the results are real.

And what’s just as noteworthy as the improvement in skills is the reduction of wear and tear on the athlete’s body. Not only are quarterbacks able to go through plays as many times as necessary, but they can also do it all without suffering one hit.

Bailenson’s idea developed into STRIVR Labs, and it’s not just Hogan (who had the best three games of his career after using the technology) and Stanford who have benefitted. Seven NFL teams have already partnered with the company heading into the 2016 season to begin the process of training in VR.

For the fans


While it’s every fan’s dream to be courtside during the NBA finals, on the 50-yard line at the Super Bowl, or…um…wherever the optimal place is to be at a NASCAR race (though for most of us that might be far, far away from a NASCAR race), it’s often impossible. VR, however, can make that dream a, um, virtual reality, and the technology is already being implemented to step up the spectating experience and give fans the sensation of being at the game, all without leaving their home.

Take NBA opening night last year, for example, when Golden State kicked off the 2015-2016 season with a win. Not only did Warriors fans in the stadium get to experience the excitement, but—thanks to a collaboration between the NBA, Turner Sports and NextVR—fans with Samsung Gear VR headset got to experience it in VR as well, making the National Basketball League the first major sports league to live-stream a version of a game in virtual reality. (Note: NextVR, in what is indisputably the dullest use of the technology ever, also streamed that month’s Democratic debate in VR.)

While users couldn’t actually smell the sweat or get caught on the kiss cam when they watched Stephen Curry lead the warriors to a 111-95 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans, it still made for an impressively immersive experience (and the beer was a lot cheaper from where they were watching it in their living rooms). It was also a pretty groundbreaking moment for both the sports world and virtual reality, and gave us a taste of what we can expect in the future.

However, much like the Warriors game, it will, again, be limited to Samsung Gear VR. (Keep in mind that this programming will really be 360-degree storytelling, but we are using the term “VR” for convenience and clarity).

For the future


The last 12 months have been huge in terms of sports and the idea of virtual reality—from both a fan and player’s perspective—and as technology becomes more advanced, we’re set to move away from this idea of virtual reality and more towards VR in the true sense. “Right now they’re training based on video captured from the field,” Murray says. “The next iteration is room-scale VR, and putting the QB in a room where he can actually move like he’s on the field and work with a physical ball.”

This technology could give players the chance to not just re-watch the game but re-live it–and even change the outcome.

“If we had a system that gathered movement data on the field using image recognition and blob detection, we could pipe that data into something like Madden and you could recreate every single play from a game,” explains Solutions Engineer Marc Boudria, “and you could have it be interactive since you’re already driving it with a game engine.”

“All you need is the real data from the first few seconds of the game,” Boudria explains. “You duplicate the situation, and the 21 other players are programmed to act as they did when the game really happened. The quarterback is the variable and affects change. If they do the same play as the game, the same outcome will result. If they do a different play–a better play–then the AI of a game like Madden powers the other players to respond accordingly and there’s a different outcome. It’s a new way to coach decision-making.”

In other words, instead of simply watching game tape in typical or 360 form, the player could use VR to revisit and relive a play countless times, in different ways, to actually get back in the game and make the right call. Certain aspects could be scripted to fit the original situation (players on the field, their positions, their initial moves), but instead of just re-watching what happened, the QB could make a decision, take action, and literally jerk away from defenders or make a throw, and the “players” would react—effectively giving the QB a second chance.

As for how fans could benefit from a *true* VR experience…well, that remains to be seen.

And finally

What’s kicking off in Rio this week is obviously a massive and incredibly important event, which allows people from around the world to bridge language barriers and cultural differences and the continuous opportunity to escape reality for a moment, instead focusing on the fall of a ball, the perfection of a dive or the excitement of the 100-meter dash. Meanwhile, virtual reality is a massive and incredibly important type of technology that allows us the same effect and to experience the same fantastical feelings of awe: to be transported to a new world of sorts.

And with their powers combined, well, that’s what we call changing the game.

Omar Khan

More Stories from Fjord