Intel is upping its virtual reality game.
The tech giant today announced a multi-year deal with Turner Sports and the NCAA to stream March Madness college basketball games in virtual reality, starting with this month’s NCAA men’s national tournament.
Intel is building off its acquisition of virtual reality startup Voke last year. Before that deal, Voke partnered with Turner and the NCAA to broadcast the 2016 Final Four and National Championship in virtual reality for the first time.
Now Intel, with help from Turner Sports, is doubling down. Starting with this weekend’s Sweet 16 and Elite 8 matchups, the company will stream six games — including the Final Four and National Championship — in virtual reality at two tiers of pricing that offer different functionality for the user.
The “Silver” virtual ticket option costs $1.99 per game and gives fans access to a 180-degree courtside view with the same CBS commentary that viewers watching the traditional TV broadcast will hear.
The “Gold” option runs at $2.99 per game (or $7.99 for all six games) and gives the fan more flexibility with the option to switch between seven cameras angles, from courtside to the student section to behind the basket. Or, they can sit back and watch professionally-produced VR coverage with dedicated game commentary — meaning reporters and analysts will call the action from the VR perspective.
“We’re putting the power into the fans’ hands,” David Aufhauser, managing director of strategy and product for Intel Sports Group, told GeekWire. “They can determine how they want to experience VR.”
This is the first time “virtual tickets” have been sold to March Madness games. Both ticket options will provide access to virtual brackets, scoreboards, stats, shot charts, and more.
You can access the NCAA March Madness Live VR app through the Oculus store; you’ll need a Gear VR headset and a Samsung device to watch the games in virtual reality. Turner will also put out content via Facebook 360 Video on the NCAA March Madness Facebook page.
Hania Poole, vice president and general manager of NCAA Digital (which Turner Sports operates), told GeekWire that the decision to expand virtual reality coverage and offer “virtual seats” is a natural evolution after the initial VR test last year.
With more ways to control the viewing options and various camera angles, Poole compared the experience to NFL Redzone, the popular service that shows football fans every NFL scoring play on Sundays and offers an alternative to the traditional experience of watching entire games.
While Turner Sports knows that Intel’s technology is robust and works well, it is still learning what type of new content fans will really embrace.
“We are learning if fans like switching cameras and if they like controlling the experience themselves versus a fully-produced feed,” she noted. “This is aimed at testing that.”
Intel is using camera pods that have 12 embedded cameras; there will be a total of 84 individual cameras covering the Final Four and National Championship games.
Intel also today announced the formation of Intel True VR, its new VR brand that is the “official virtual reality provider of the NCAA.”
Intel’s VR deal with Turner Sports will extend beyond basketball, too. The company is clearly bullish about virtual reality, particularly in sports.
“Our vision is about creating an entirely new medium such that you can do things in VR that you cannot do when watching TV or in the arena,” Aufhauser said.
Aufhauser, who worked for Voke before the Intel acquisition, said that he and his colleagues are in “acceleration mode” as far as developing more VR technology and inking partnerships with companies like Turner Sports and leagues like the NCAA.
“This is definitely going to be the next wave of how fans interact with content,” he said. “…The adoption around VR is moving extremely fast.”
As far as the “virtual ticket” idea, Aufhauser noted that Intel provides the technology to enable the new experiences while its distribution partners come up with their own way to monetize the content. For example, some partners use a sponsorship or advertising model and provide the VR streams for free to the user.
“Because of the flexibility of our platform, we’re able to essentially enable our partners’ business model to succeed,” Aufhauser said.
In addition to virtual reality, Intel will also utilize its 360-degree replay technology during the Final Four, using 28 5K ultra-high definition cameras inside the University of Phoenix Stadium next month. That’s a result of Intel’s separate acquisition last year of Israel-based Replay Technologies; we’ve seen the replays used by leagues like the NBA, MLB, and NFL.
This is all part of Intel’s push into the sports world. The company dabbled in sports several years ago, and made a statement at its CES keynote in 2016, spending nearly half of the presentation on its partnerships with ESPN’s X Games, New Balance, and others.
Then Intel established its Intel Sports Group this past fall, right around the Voke acquisition, and has continued building products and services with wearable computing, virtual reality, connected devices, and more that have application in the sports world.
“Our job is to help fans or athletes,” James Carwana, general manager of the Intel Sports Group, told GeekWire in January. “By doing so, our belief is that we can create new value for folks like leagues or rights holders. Or, from an athlete perspective, how can we help athletes and teams perform at their peak level?”
At its CES 2017 press conference in January, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich had attendees wear virtual reality headsets and guided them through a real-time demo of a live college basketball game, utilizing Voke’s technology to let people feel like they were actually inside the arena.
Intel is not the only big tech company looking at the sports world for business opportunities. Microsoft is partnering with the NFL, with players and coaches using its Surface tablet on the sidelines; Amazon and Twitter are exploring live streaming opportunities; SAP sells services that help engage fans.
There are also other tech companies looking to provide virtual reality services to sports leagues. The NBA, for example, is working with California-based startup NextVR and Turner Sports to broadcast one game per week in virtual reality this season. Those VR feeds are available to NBA League Pass subscribers (or those who pay for single games) and feature dedicated announcers and special graphics built specifically for VR.