UNIVERSITY PLACE, WASH. — It was the first round of the 115th U.S. Open and I was standing at the 16th tee box overlooking Chambers Bay when Wen-Chong Liang, David Hearn, and Hiroyuki Fujita walked directly in front of me.
One by one, the professional golfers stepped up and smacked their shots down the fairway. I moved my head to the left and saw the gallery standing quietly. On the right were train tracks and a peaceful Puget Sound in the distance.
The entire time, though, I was never actually on hole 16, nor was I standing anywhere on the actual course. Rather, I was inside an air conditioned hospitality tent hundreds of yards away from the action.
This was my first time watching live sports with a virtual reality headset. It was amazing.
A Laguna Beach, Calif.-startup called NextVR partnered with FOX Sports this month at the U.S. Open for what the companies call the “first live multi-camera VR broadcast experience.”
NextVR set up five 180-degree stereoscopic rigs at vantage points around the course equipped with Red Digital 6K cameras that were live-streaming the golf action.
At select hospitality tents around Chambers Bay — and at FOX offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Vancouver — fans were able to strap on a Samsung Gear VR headset and immerse themselves in the action as if they were actually standing in those locations on the course.
It’s difficult to describe the experience other than simply saying, “it feels like you are there.” This is something you need to experience to really understand.
“It’s really a new medium and an entirely new way to experience live entertainment,” said David Cramer, senior vice president of corporate strategy for NextVR.
NextVR, a 30-person company founded in 2009 that wants to be the “Netflix of virtual reality,” tested the technology with FOX Sports at a NASCAR race earlier this year, but this was the first time the company processed live sports feeds to its platform.
“I don’t think this qualifies as a test anymore,” Cramer said.
The stream itself, fed wirelessly from the cameras to NextVR’s app on a Samsung Note 4 that connects to the $199 Gear headset, certainly wasn’t of the highest quality and had a bit of latency. But it was good enough to where I could see serious potential for virtual reality in the sports world.
Cramer explained that the vision, from a golf perspective, is to let users see a map of the course through their headset and pick from several different camera angles on each hole. Beyond that, he envisions access to feeds not only from one live sporting event, but from an array of content sorted by categories.
“It will be an aggregation of thousands of different types of experiences in virtual reality,” he said.
For all the people complaining about FOX’s broadcast of the U.S. Open — which also included several other high-tech gadgets like remote control cars and drones — a virtual reality headset seems like a nice alternative. Imagine playing the role of a live TV producer with the ability to pick from a variety of different camera feeds set up around the course and customize the way you watch an event.
Of course, many will prefer to sit back on their couch with a big-screen HDTV and watch a professional production. But I can totally see people paying money for access to a virtual courtside seat at the NBA Finals or for an amazing green-side view at the 18th hole of a U.S. Open.
Virtual reality has yet to hit the mainstream. Jim Willson, director of immersive products and VR for Samsung, told GeekWire that his company has taken a measured approach with marketing its VR hardware as more content becomes available to users.
Samsung launched its original headset with only a handful of videos, but now has more than 170 clips on its MilkVR platform. The company, which has partnerships with the NBA, Mountain Dew, Red Bull, and others, now has demo devices set up in 350 Best Buy stores to help people experience virtual reality.
Here’s some footage from last year’s NBA Slam Dunk Contest from inside the Samsung Gear VR headset. The video doesn’t really do the experience justice, but gives you a decent idea:
Willson noted that there needs to be enough content to create what he calls a “daily VR habit,” where people can put on the headset and watch something fresh each time.
“People aren’t used to having to put on a headset to enjoy entertainment — they are used to watching something on their mobile phone,” he said. “Every time people go in, we want them to see something new so they know there’s something to come back to.
“Once you get in the habit of doing it and get used to it, it just becomes normal,” he added.
I’m interested to see how virtual reality devices impact sports, particularly from a fan perspective. We’ve already seen teams using VR for training purposes, but how can teams and leagues take advantage of the technology to improve the fan experience?
As headset and smartphone technology improve and more content is pushed to virtual reality platforms, expect more experiences like we just had at the U.S. Open. Virtual reality is in its nascent stages today, but these devices may become widely used more quickly than you think — or, maybe not.