In order to break into the mainstream VR needs to define what it is

Do we need a new way of thinking about emerging technologies?

After almost a month of looking into virtual reality and augmented reality at Digital Sport, it’s become clear that there are numerous uses for both technologies. There’s fan engagement, personal fitness uses, elite sporting performance and even broadcast. In terms of AR, there are other interesting uses, too, which essentially involve giving us information about the world around us.

And yet, it’s hard to think of what we can do with these technologies outside of the box we’re currently living in.

There are undoubtedly plenty of creative thoughts around – the types of things we’ve never seen before like turning the stadium into an interactive world or using VR to transform gym sessions into something which might well be more fun for many people.

At the same time, however, perhaps the main perception when it comes to something like VR is that the gold standard for the tech will probably be to transform the live broadcast experience by bringing fans – virtually – into the stadium rather than sitting in front of a screen with a beer in hand.

I’m now wondering whether this is a problem. Clearly the ability to feel the atmosphere of the stands on matchday is an attractive proposition for everyone. Buying virtual season tickets to the same seat every time in order to watch your favourite team even if you’re thousands of miles away is a genuinely exciting prospect. But is that really the best use of the tech?

The problems that VR has at the moment seem to turn into a vicious circle. You can’t tempt people to buy headsets unless they’re genuinely missing out on great VR content, but you can’t justify the time, effort and money on creating such content if so few people have headsets to consume it. It means we might have to think differently – outside of the box. VR experiences in specific locations like museums – like Tottenham Hotspur will do at their new stadium – or anything that makes the medium stand out from the others.

At the first Digital Sport London event this month, the panel spoke about how VR will differ from traditional broadcast, which speaks to this idea. “Maybe a straight piece to camera won’t work as well on VR, but behind the scenes and maybe being able to see the cameraman maybe does,” said Rupert Harris of AnimalVegetableMineral, whilst James Venn of Publicis Media talked about sport needing to work with rights holders and events organisers in order to create content which gets right up close and personal with the action taking place. Placing a camera works to give those watching on TV a sense of the action, but why is VR any better if it can’t offer something close to the experience of actually being there? And for that, you need a different approach. The problem is, if you’re watching a live football match, won’t you want to see all of the action rather than focus on some certain aspects?

But should VR really try to transform the TV experience anyway? Or should it aim to create something that’s simply different?

Already, we think of different media in different ways. If you’re a publisher or broadcaster, a short thought or clip can be simply tweeted. Videos might work well on Facebook if they’re short and will hold your audience’s attention for a few minutes. Longer articles are for times when they have more time at their disposal. You wouldn’t present an hour-long documentary on Facebook, nor would you craft a well-written article to be serialised in a Twitter thread. The medium, we know, is the message.

So the big question for VR – it seems to me – is what is it supposed to do? As mentioned above, there are plenty of different uses, but within each one, what’s the point? Defining the answer to that question will also define what sorts of content that can be produced, and the public will have more reason to invest in a headset if they know what to expect.

VR technology is getting closer and closer to the mainstream, but it might need a new way of thinking about it if it’s to eventually break through.

About author

Chris McMullan
Chris McMullan 836 posts

Chris is a sports journalist and editor of Digital Sport - follow him on Twitter @CJMcMullan_

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