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NextVR tested its live streaming in virtual reality at the U.S. Open last year. Photo via NextVR.

Most sports fans don’t think about grabbing their virtual reality headset when it’s time to watch the big game, but that could soon change.

In what NextVR Chairman Brad Allen calls a “milestone for the industry,” FOX Sports inked a 5-year deal with the Laguna Beach, Calif.-based startup earlier this month to stream virtual content from its live sports broadcasts.

The partnership is another reminder of the fast-growing virtual reality industry and shows that traditional media giants like FOX are taking VR seriously. Given how fast the technology is improving and how hardware is becoming cheaper and easier to access — see Samsung’s most recent bundle deal — watching live sporting events in virtual reality could become a regular experience for fans faster than most people expect.

“It’s been a really fun partnership because we are both sitting on the same side of the table and helping to build the VR market together,” Allen told GeekWire about the deal with FOX. “That’s a big point.”

NextVR Executive Chairman Brad Allen at CES in January.
NextVR Executive Chairman Brad Allen at CES in January.

The first official event in the partnership was at the big Daytona 500 NASCAR race earlier this month. NextVR took fans wearing a Samsung Gear VR headset at home to the starting line and with team racing crews for an up-close-and-personal view of the action, along with audio commentary and graphics that showed the race leaders.

NextVR has already worked with nearly every major sports league worldwide, testing its technology at events like the U.S. Open or NBA All-Star Game. We caught up with Allen to learn more about what the FOX deal means to his company, and what lies ahead for NextVR.

GeekWire: Thanks for chatting with us, Brad. The new deal with FOX must be a milestone for NextVR.

NextVR Chairman Brad Allen: “It’s not only a milestone for us, but also a milestone for the industry. Obviously VR is at the top of everybody’s mind right now. Every brand in the world seems to like it and the exciting thing about the deal with FOX is that they’ve always been very aggressive and innovative. What this deal does is provides a partnership and platform for them with new technology. For us, if you look at all of the rights that FOX owns around live broadcasts, this provides a platform for an endless stream of content — that’s one of the things that has been missing in VR. You have a lot of content creators out there, but a lot of it is one-off type of stuff — some great, some not so great.

Fortunately, with sports, there is a great story being told every time. With FOX’s experience and expertise in sports coverage, combined with our technology and delivering a new experience to the fan, it’s unlike anything ever before. It’s definitely almost historical in the sense of a first-ever partnership like this.”

GeekWire: You’ve been doing some test-runs with FOX at golf tournaments and other sporting events. How did this 5-year deal come about?

Allen: “It’s very complicated with media rights around live broadcasting, so our strategy from the beginning was to engage all stakeholders — broadcasters, the leagues, etc. — to get everybody involved, because for VR to be successful you need everybody committed to it to help build the market together.

If you look at the last couple of years with the rocketship that is VR, our strategy was to team up with the content rights holders, and this case it was FOX, which has a huge brand and firepower with marketing and media. They are a great group of people to work with. It’s been a really fun partnership because we are both sitting on the same side of the table and helping to build the VR market together. That’s a big point.”

My colleague John Cook watches live golf with a virtual reality headset at the U.S. Open.
GeekWire co-founder John Cook watches live golf with a virtual reality headset at the U.S. Open.

GeekWire: So, what does this partnership mean from the fan’s point of view?

Allen: “I’m a huge sports fan and I’m super excited about this. We are trying to find the best sports experiences in virtual reality. Is it at an NBA game? Do you as the fan want to be transported there and be sitting courtside and look up at the scoreboard to see the score? Do you want to listen to the arena announcer and hear the sights and sounds? Or do you want to hear the broadcast announcers? Do you want to have a more produced feed and see all the stats and graphics that come on a live broadcast?

These are all things being developed. Ultimately, you and me as consumers will have the choice to switch camera positions, to opt in or out for a produced feed with graphics, to have either the home or away team announcers — these are all things that we are working on around best practices and best experiences that are not completely figured out yet.

We have done a lot of tests already. For example, at the U.S. Open, we did an internal test and you could see all the cameras on the course and pick from any of them, or see the leaderboard and hear announcers. You could do all those things in VR, as opposed to if you were physically sitting there at a tee box, you wouldn’t be able to do them. You’d have to look at your phone.

So these are really fun things to figure out with the fan experience. We want to provide a customized menu to the fan for how they want to view or experience an event, not to mention adding social media, e-commerce, fantasy sports, and all those things around it.”

The NextVR experience at the U.S. Open. Photo via NextVR.
The NextVR experience at the U.S. Open. Photo via NextVR.

GeekWire: From a hardware and software perspective, this seems difficult. What does this production look like on the tech side?

Allen: “First off, from the camera side of things, we’re able to do this now because of the way we were compressing data for 3D TV back in 2009. That’s basically our secret sauce: the ability to compress all of the data. The cameras capture 24,000 pixels horizontally and 6,000 pixels vertically — that is a lot to send through to a mobile device. We compress it aggressively and we’re also able to send it through at 4-to-8 megabytes per second, with 60 frames per second. That’s about the same as a live HD stream from Netflix and really is what allows us to do what we do in real-time and also dynamically add in all these different elements during an event.

On the software side, we are agnostic. We work with different cameras and play on all the VR devices. Speaking of, there is a lot of VR noise out there about content playing with iOS or with Google Cardboard and how the quality of the experience is very poor. That’s fine for now because there is the ‘wow’ factor of people trying it out for the first time. But we talk about going from ‘wow’ to ‘watch.’ Everything you see right now, for the most part, is short-form with five minutes of content or less. We are doing sports events, which last a couple hours long.

One stat I thought that was very interesting and encouraging was that during our NBA Tip Off game with people using the Innovator Edition of the Samsung GearVR, the average time someone wore their headset was 38 minutes. That’s pretty good, given the big, bulky uncomfortable headsets.

But for this thing to really go mainstream with a mass market is when you get a form factor on the hardware side that is the equivalent to a pair of glasses. That is happening this year, with VR glasses that weigh 130 grams. They are still tethered to a mobile device, but that is a lot better than having a phone hanging inches from your face that can heat up. This is all moving fast and there’s been a huge acceleration in interest in the past three months.”

GeekWire: What does your revenue model look like?

Allen: “For us, there are ways to monetize the content — sponsorship, advertising, or subscriptions and pay-per-view models. If you think about the biggest brands in the sports world, they have a very, very passionate following. Those fans, including myself, are used to paying for access to the content one way or another, whether it’s going to games or paying for ESPN or some other channels. When the quality of the [virtual reality] watching experience is one that you actually feel like you are there at a game — we are almost there now. I remember the first time I watched some Warriors footage in VR, I had that holy moment — my personal immediate reaction was that I’d pay $20 to watch a game from this courtside seat in virtual reality.

nextvr11Most people can’t pay for a courtside seat or can’t get access to one. People around the globe want to go to a game of their favorite team but they’ve never been able to get there because it’s halfway across the world. Would they pay to watch that? Absolutely.

If you talk about how to monetize the content on a more cinematic level or something like that, that is more difficult. There is some really cool content out there around storytelling, but it’s not consistent — some are good and others aren’t. If they aren’t good, no one wants to watch them and they lose money.

The stories on the court or on the field, though, it’s right there in front of you. That’s always a good story — your team might not win, but you had fun while watching.

Fast forward a couple years with 200 million headsets out there, if one percent of those want to watch a world class event with a huge brand name or something, you have two million tickets you can sell to one event around the world via a live stream with very little production costs. There is compelling content everyday with sports and music.”

NextVR Chairman speaks on a panel at CES in January with Verizon executive Brian Angiolet, Uninterrupted President, Maverick Carter, and Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive.
NextVR Chairman Brad Allen (second from left) speaks on a panel at CES in January with Verizon executive Brian Angiolet, Uninterrupted President Maverick Carter, and Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive.

GeekWire: So, you’re getting into music, too? 

Allen: “Music is a big one. There’s also Planet Earth-type of experiences, and you can get into all kinds of creative things there. Those are the top three — sports, music, and that. You also can do everything in VR. We did the presidential debates on CNN, or you can have a big breaking news type of story in VR and transport yourself to wherever the camera is. That is kind of cool, but it’s not as clear on how you monetize that kind of stuff. Between sports and music, you can be doing a live event every single day around the globe.”

GearVR_desktop_buyNow_gearVRGeekWire: Where does NextVR go from here? What are you looking at in the next one, two, three, five years ahead? 

Allen: “First off, if you think about how fast technology is moving, it is unprecedented. But at the same time, if you look at the Gear VR and take off the straps and put it sideways against your ear, it’s like a brick cell phone — big and bulky. Now look at what we have today with smartphones. VR is going to go the same way at a much faster pace. I have yet to meet anyone that will argue that the technology won’t improve from where it is today. The form factor will be huge.

The other thing that is really important is mobile VR. The Gear VR first came to market, then you had Cardboard — these devices, and specifically the screens, weren’t built for VR. We worked with Qualcomm on its new Snapdragon 820 chip and starting in April, when people buy new smartphones with that chip, the experience will be as good or better than Gear VR is today. That is huge.

The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have phenomenal experiences, but the price point is a barrier for a lot of people. You need a $1,500 PC and a $600 headset. The mobile market is different — everyone has a phone. If you can plug the phone into a pair of glasses — eventually it will connect via Bluetooth — I’m going to feel like I’m standing on the sidelines at a Jets game. It’s crazy, crazy stuff.”

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