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Intel CEO Brian Krzanich talks about the company’s sports-related projects at CES in Las Vegas earlier this month. (GeekWire photo)

If you’re an avid sports fan, it’s likely you’ve recently seen or heard about Intel. That’s because the 48-year-old tech giant is investing big in the sports world, a vertical where it sees opportunity to use its technology as a way to help both athletes and fans.

GeekWire recently caught up with James Carwana, general manager of the Intel Sports Group, a new unit the company established this past September. He’s in charge of leading various sports-related partnerships, acquisitions, projects, and more that all make use of Intel’s products and services with wearable computing, virtual reality, connected devices, and more.

Intel 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.

A BMX biker with an embedded Intel chip on his bike flies over Intel CEO Brian Krzanich at the company’s CES 2016 keynote in Las Vegas.

But soon Carwana and Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, whom he was working with as a technical assistant, realized there was an opportunity to do something bigger in a more concerted and organized way.

That led to the creation of the Intel Sports Group this past fall, right about when the company acquired virtual reality streaming startup Voke. At its CES press conference this month, 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 CEO Brian Krzanich.

“Viewers will get to decide what seat they have,” Krzanich said. “That’s the future of sports viewing.”

Intel made a separate acquisition last year of Israel-based Replay Technologies and is pushing forward with its 360-degree replays that leagues like the NBA, MLB, and NFL — you’ll see it during next month’s Super Bowl — are all using.

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.

But according to Carwana, Intel’s strategy is unique — read on to find out why.

Intel booth at CES 2016.

GeekWire: Intel can pursue a number of different opportunities in various verticals. Why invest so much time, energy, and money into sports?

James Carwana. Photo via Intel.

James Carwana: “If we take a step back, there’s a common theme among all the verticals we invest in. The world is undergoing this big digital transformation; everything is essentially becoming smart and connected. Digitizing the world is only part of the equation. If you collect data at the edge, you need to send it up to the cloud for analysis to draw some insights, and then you send the analysis back to edge. Intel’s belief is that this is happening across a variety of industries, and being a company that has assets from the edge up through the data center and with all the analytics, we have an opportunity to partner with these organizations in order to create value.

We were looking at different verticals where we felt that there were these types of opportunities, and sports is certainly one of them. We really aspire to create amazing new sports experiences by giving fans and athletes a way to experience the game like they couldn’t do before.”

GeekWire: We’re seeing many different tech companies venturing into the sports world today. How is Intel’s strategy different?

Carwana: “Our job is to help fans or athletes. 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?

We are fundamentally looking at the business in terms of developing two core competencies. The first is immersive video. The second is around human performance.

The thought is that you have video and data; video is a source of data, just like an accelerometer. The opportunity to use video that crosses over to human performance is a very real thing. Human performance is largely based on data and analytics. Data is also becoming more and more of almost entertainment as well. We saw these two core competencies slowly bleeding together over time.”

Intel last year acquired Voke, a virtual reality streaming company, and used its technology to stream the Saints vs. Buccaneers game last month. Photo via Intel.

GeekWire: Tell me more about the connection between immersive video and human performance.

Carwana: “With immersive video, there are two components of that technology with the Voke acquisition, which is fixed-point virtual reality, and the Replay Technologies acquisition, which is looking at volumetric video.

We label this as immersive video because in the end, fans are really looking to get deeper in with the passion of the game and experience things they haven’t before. Our belief is that it isn’t just volumetric video or virtual reality — it will probably be both.”

GeekWire: What do you mean by volumetric video?

Carwana: “With Intel’s 360-degree replay technology, what we are doing is digitizing the volume of an arena. Picture a stadium filled with all these tiny little cubes of voxels — that’s essentially what we are creating. Once you digitize the volume of an arena, you can do amazing things. You have an opportunity to fly a virtual camera and you can see things where there isn’t a physical camera. We can show you exactly what a player is seeing at a moment of time. What is the quarterback seeing when he looked to pass? Our belief is that it will allow fans to experience the game in ways they haven’t been able to before.”

GeekWire: As far as athletic performance, what is Intel doing there?

Carwana: “We aspire to help provide new tools to trainers, coaches, athletic directors, and others so they can prescribe new ways for the athlete or the team to perform the best. The way we plan to do this is to partner with companies like Kinduct Technologies and use artificial intelligence to bring insights that might not be apparent to the human eye. How can we help athletes avoid injury? How can we help a team perform at its best level?”

GeekWire: Are you looking to acquire content rights, much like Twitter and others are trying to do?

Carwana: “Our job is to enhance the value the rights holders have. We are not looking to acquire rights.”

GeekWire: What makes this the right time for a tech company to invest in the sports world?

Carawana: “The technology is getting to a point where it’s passing a threshold. For example, with the volumetric video, we have two racks of servers working to create a digital representation of the field of play. It also requires a set of advanced algorithms and a good amount of computing horsepower in order to produce that. With Voke, the algorithms we have there from a stitching perspective we think has passed the threshold.

But the other side of the equation is, ultimately we all are here to serve the fans. Consumer media behavior is changing; the way people are asking to experience the game is starting to shift. As this shift is happening and as technology has hit this threshold, it started to create a perfect storm and prompted us to create this formal business unit. As you can imagine, it was not a light decision by Intel to do this.”

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