virtual reality

Immersing Yourself in Sports Through Your Phone

In the future, we won't just be using our phones to book cabs and scan Instagram – the digital and the real will merge.

03 October 2016, 4:00pm

From the column 'O2 Presents #NewNormal'

Brought to you by the #NewNormal, O2's mission to question, explore and understand how mobile is changing the way we act and interact as humans. Read more #NewNormal stories here.

You live in an era where your phone can pretty much do everything – short of physically clothing and feeding you. You can book a flight, find a date, and hail a cab at a moment's notice. It contains an infinite digital world that serves to make the real world easier to navigate, and yet these two worlds rarely merge in any sort of fluid method. But that could change.

Virtual Reality is fast becoming a viable reality for the average consumer, and not just a pet project of industry insiders and the mega rich. With the advent of complex tech like 360 video, as well as the simple brilliance of products like Google Cardboard, people can windsurf, ski, tightrope walk, and even play rugby just by looking at their phones.

At this stage, the minds behind virtual reality clearly see sport as the logical jump-off point for taking the tech forward, and most of the better examples of mobile VR tend to involve some sort of athletic pursuit. Wanting to know more about the potential of VR, sport, and how it can be condensed into a smartphone screen, I got in touch with Sander Schouten, Director of Business at Beyond Sports, a Netherlands-based company that's using VR to help professional athletes take their training to the next level.

Much like you, I had no idea how they did this, so I began by asking Sander about the Beyond Sports programme. "We use real metadata and we transfer that into a virtual world to allow coaches or players to have a first person feel of a match." When the user is wearing the headset, they'll see a football game that visually resembles a match on FIFA. They'll be at pitch level, meaning they can make decisions based on real life game scenarios. Sander's team does this by capturing the "X and Y coordinates" of every player on the field from actual footage of a real game, and then transferring it to their 3D virtual simulation.

A player can re-assume the role he played in the real game. But where they might have picked the wrong pass IRL, they can return to this exact moment and attempt to make the correct move. Sander tells me it's geared at fine tuning mental reactions. It also allows younger players to mimic the roles of older players, giving them the opportunity to mentally tackle a more advanced game that they might not be ready for physically. "We could use the same scenarios for the youth academies. So a 15-year-old could play the same position as one of the top players in the Premier League."

Because you're immersed in a phone's screen, the physical aspects of sport can't really be tested by VR. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. American football and rugby are pioneering some of the most innovative VR tech, as it allows players to polish the more technical parts of their game without subjecting their bodies to the brutal collisions the sports are known for. Strivr labs, a company based in Silicon Valley, is using VR headsets and 360 video to sharpen the decision making of Stanford University's quarterbacks – without risking their bodies.

Similarly, O2 and England Rugby recently used VR to give fans the opportunity to do something they'd never otherwise be able to: train with the team (and return home in one piece). It was so successful that O2 decided to do it again, with the help of VR company Happy Finish. Daniel Cheetham, the Chief Interactive Officer at Happy Finish, recently told me about the project. "The premise is that the VR user has the chance to break through to the England squad, but to do so they have to take on some challenges against the England team: scrum, conversion, tackling passing, scoring a try."

How did they go about creating it? "The experience will be half stereo 360 video, bringing the users a feeling of being up close and personal with the England team. We shot at Twickenham and Penny Hill Park, the England training ground."

The logistics of this seem slightly beyond me, so I gave Daniel the daunting task of explaining it to a layman like myself: "We will be breaking the user from 360 video into a real-time CG environment – like a VR game – where they will take on the challenges.

We recorded the movements of a number of the key players and have modelled them in a futuristic making sure they move in their own discernable ways.

"So this is sort of where the real interest came in from the coaching staff. The motion capture gives us lots of interesting data on the players' performance."

I guess I've got it. Except for one thing. When I was watching the videos of this tech in action, something bugged me. Does VR allow there to be a connection between the ball and the mobile screen you're looking at? For example, could you physically toss a rugby ball then see it appear on the mobile screen attached to your headset? Like a trooper, Daniel again tried to spell it out for me:

"It's complex. For Samsung and the simple Oculus and Vive options we've stripped the gameplay back to the raw elements around accuracy, speed and timing. So it's pretty reductive in terms of gameplay. We spoke extensively with the England coaching team to ensure the game elements represent the skills needed well. But they are not a true physical representation – as in you don't physically throw the ball."

"However we are going to do something that will allow the user to physically kick a virtual ball

for the conversion challenge. The plan is to doctor a motion capture suit so the public can put that on, put on a Vive headset and then they will have a tracked avatar in the VR space."

While Daniel feels positive about the connection between the virtual and physical, Sander doesn't believe it to be a necessary part of the technology: "We don't think it would really help. It's the same reason we don't have a football on the ground for our users to kick, because that has to do with your fine motor skills – that's a different part of your brain.

"If you start to mimic things in the virtual world that aren't really real in the physical world then you are going to start training the wrong thing. What you can train is the spatial awareness and that's what we do."

So if VR is currently honing the mental skills of athletes, how will it improve the experience of the fans who watch them - people who probably aren't too fussed with technicalities? Will your armchair football follower be able to experience being at a stadium without actually having to leave his armchair? Could you cheer your team from the stands even though you're just looking at your phone? The answer is yes, but Sander's not so sure it would be a good thing. "Why would you sit with a 180 or 360 camera to watch a game? It will never get you the same depth or same excitement as the real game. Being in the stadium is just more fun than watching it at home and thinking you're in the stadium."

Then where does that leave the fan and mobile VR? Right on the field, it seems: "I think in the future the regular sports fan is going to have more insights than ever. You'll be able to see what Messi or Ronaldo sees when he scores the winning goal." The POV possibilities of mobile VR really are exciting for the fan, but they also benefit the club's which are attracting vast global followings. As Sander explains: "It's a good way to engage more fans across the globe without them having to leave their hometown and come to your stadium. If you look at a Premier League ground, it has a capacity of, say, 50,000, but the demand for tickets is often bigger than the tickets available. Why wouldn't you open that up for fans from across the globe to watch at Old Trafford or the Emirates without them having to leave their own chair?"

It seems that in the future we won't just be using our phones to book cabs and scan Instagram. The digital world and the real will merge. And it will materialise by you taking the field at Stamford Bridge, or Twickenham, or Wembley, even if you are on the other side of the world.

Find out more about the #NewNormal right here.