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Could virtual reality be the next tech tool for rugby?

These are exciting times in the virtual reality world. Not least, the last year has seen the launch of the first ever mass market VR console in the form of Oculus Rift, followed closely by its impressive competitor, the HTC Vive. These devices are ‘game changers’ in every sense.  

But it’s not just gamers who are excited about next-gen VR. For rugby fans and coaches alike, it has the potential to transform (or at least enhance) our experience of the sport. So are we past the gimmick stage? If so, how might virtual reality make a difference? We take a look…

The rugby fan’s view: up close and personal

The idea of fully immersive virtual reality certainly isn’t a new one. A handful of VR headsets started to appear as far back as the nineties, although the limitations of the technology at the time meant that the experience they offered tended to be neither ‘real’ nor especially appealing.

Fast forward to 2012 and things had moved on dramatically. Spearheaded by crowdfunding, Oculus promised a convincing, ultra-smooth VR gaming experience through its ground breaking Rift headset.

It took until the beginning of this year for the first mass-market consumer version of the Rift to hit the shelves. The world of rugby, however, was quick to get in on the VR game. Shortly before the 2014 Six Nations, while the Rift was still in its development stage, the English national rugby union side was involved in the creation of Wear the Rose, a multi-sensory experience that promised to put the viewer at the centre of a squad training session. Users could turn their head in any direction for complete viewing control of a 360-degree landscape. Highlights included being able not just to see but to feel what it felt like to be tackled or to receive a pass.

Far from being thrown together, this type of experience demands an awful lot in terms of production. Wear the Rose (which was as much about showcasing the potential of Oculus Rift as showing us something new about the team) reportedly involved 160 hours of filming and 320 hours of development.

So for the time being at least, it’s unlikely that we will see a new, immersive viewer-controlled VR experience available for each and every high profile match. But it’s reasonable to assume that these set piece VR experiences will become more common. The 2019 Rugby World Cup will be one to watch in this regard; expect VR experiences to feature heavily alongside the usual promo videos.

Live viewing versus post-match analysis: where is VR most useful?  

If you had the tech at your fingertips, would you actually choose to watch an entire live rugby match in virtual reality?

As Cnet explained, VR overkill is all too possible. Yes, you can be catapulted into the centre of the action, but this can mean getting distracted by inconsequential details. The effects can be bewildering - not to mention physically draining after long periods.

There’s a better argument for the usefulness of VR not as the primary means of enjoying the match - but afterwards - as a way of better understanding what just happened. Rugby fans could be in for a boost in this area, thanks to a new development concept from Accenture. As official technology partner of the RBS 6 Nations Championship, the data tech specialist has recently announced a new VR experience aimed at rugby fans.

The Accenture places viewers at the heart of a stadium, enabling them to explore and interact with everything they encounter. On top of this, the viewer can explore “visualisations created from analysed game data, used to help make patterns and trends easier for participants to understand”.    

A valuable coaching tool?

Accenture’s objectives go beyond entertainment. The aim is to “visualise insight”; to provide interactive representations of complex data. One of the wider applications of this could be the creation of more realistic training scenarios. With the help of VR, players might be able to see and feel what happens when certain tactics are deployed. The idea of the ‘team talk’ could be transformed; coaches could be given a better understanding of how their strategy might pan out in real life, before being able to showcase the ‘how and why’ to the squad with the help of VR.

Virtual reality is becoming mainstream. While it's unlikely that VR will become the primary means of enjoying rugby, smart deployment of it could result in new and valuable ways to develop talent and promote better understanding of the sport.  


Any views or opinions expressed in this briefing are for guidance only and are not intended as a substitute for appropriate professional guidance. We have taken all reasonable steps to ensure the information contained herein is accurate at the time of writing but it should not be regarded as a complete or authoritative statement of law.