Glimpse of the future of televised sports? Grab your VR goggles

While soccer titans Manchester United and FC Barcelona battled at Levi’s Stadium, I got a close-up view of forward Wayne Rooney — without worrying about the soccer ball hitting my face.

 In fact, I was in the press box way up in the stands, getting a look at the future of televised sports: live virtual-reality broadcasting.

NextVR, the Orange County virtual reality startup that arranged the demonstration, beamed last Saturday’s friendly match in Santa Clara over the Internet.

The virtual broadcast was still an experiment, with only 200 or so people around the world invited to view it — not unlike when inventor Philo T. Farnsworth transmitted the first rudimentary TV images from his lab on San Francisco’s Green Street in 1927.

But David Cole, co-founder of NextVR, believes the test showed the potential of a new medium that is almost ready for prime time.

While much of the hype around virtual reality has focused on video games, sports will attract a wider mainstream audience who want to get closer to the action without leaving their couches or paying big bucks to get into the stadium.

Cole’s Laguna Beach company is planning a public virtual reality broadcast in the next 60 days, but he won’t give any hints about the event. He believes that virtual streams could become common within five years.

“I’m confident it could come much sooner than that,” Cole said. “We’re also working on live music shows and award shows.”

Saturday’s demo was the first time NextVR has attempted a live sports telecast using multiple cameras.

It previously streamed a regular-season Golden State Warriors basketball game from Oakland and part of Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. (Note to Warriors fanatics — NextVR plans to eventually post highlights in virtual reality of the team’s title-clinching Game 6, which was recorded but not streamed from Cleveland.)

For the soccer demo in Santa Clara, NextVR stationed four special cameras, including one next to each goal and one at the midfield line, with one in the stands. A fifth, movable camera was also in the stands.

The NextVR cameras were actually two side-by-side video cameras, capturing views from the left and right. But if you were wearing a Samsung Gear VR headset, which looks like fancy ski goggles, you saw the combined video with a 96-degree field of view.

The locations afforded the same basic views that the Fox network showed during its telecast. But virtual reality devices follow the path of your head, giving a viewer more choices. In this case, I could turn 180 degrees to see the rabid Man United and Barça rooters in the stands.

And virtual reality cameras add depth of field, giving the show a 3-D effect. During one sideline shot, the assistant referee crossing in front of me seemed so realistic I tried to reach out and give him a high-five.

Cole said the technology will eventually let viewers look around an object, “so if you saw the ref standing in front of camera, you can look around him, which really sells the sense of being in the experience. It makes you feel like you’re there.”

NextVR rotated shots so you weren’t always stuck in the end zone or at midfield. Yet it wasn’t like a regular telecast that centers on action immediately around the ball, so following the flow of the game was challenging.

To compensate, one view included a picture-in-picture screen that displayed the game and instant replays like a big virtual scoreboard above the field. That view came close to simulating what it’s like to sit in the premium seats.


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Although the technology did transport me from the press box to the field, the video resolution still looked fuzzy. For the demo, the company used the Gear VR headset, developed by Samsung and the Facebook-owned Oculus VR. It depends on video displayed by a mobile device like the Galaxy Note 4, and is not as sharp as on dedicated VR headsets being developed by Oculus or Sony.

But that should change in the future as mobile devices improve displays to show better VR resolution.

Virtual reality is not quite real, even though in the past two years, the technology has inched closer to the market because of companies like Oculus, which plans to release a consumer-ready headset sometime early next year.

Right now, the headset by Samsung costs around $200, not counting the price of the requisite mobile device.

To hedge its bets, NextVR is working to get its technology to all virtual reality devices now in development. In particular, Cole said Sony’s Project Morpheus virtual reality system, due out sometime in 2016, could tie into the already large audience of PlayStation 4 game console owners.

The company plans to post a highlight reel of Saturday’s game to show off its technology in about a month. It already has recorded and posted a virtual reality version of the song “A Sky Full of Stars” from the group Coldplay.

NextVR is betting that viewers will also want to see other live events, from presidential inaugurations to the Academy Awards. The company is planning an Internet-only TV service, generating pay-per-view and sponsorship revenue.

“We spent the last couple of years working hard to go after the world’s largest media brands to bring them into virtual reality,” he said.

First published on sfchronicle.comm.

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