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Fully immersive sport: how virtual reality is transforming Euro 2016

Especially if you’re an England fan, the thought of reliving the Euros in virtual reality might not be too appealing. But immersive VR is coming to a headset near you very soon...

Merely sitting back and “watching” football is fast becoming old hat. These days, the focus is squarely on “experiencing” a live event - whether you’re on your sofa or on the train. First, there was the emergence of mobile, which enabled us to follow the action no matter where we are. Right now, the way we consume sport is being taken to the next level. Virtual reality promises to bridge the gap between the players on the pitch, the supporters in the stand and the rest of us at home to deliver a genuinely “immersive” experience. So has Euro 2016 proved to be the first ever ‘virtual reality’ tournament? We take a look…

Immersive virtual reality and sport: what are we talking about?

Back in March of last year, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg paid $2 billion for Oculus, a company that was still to release its first commercial product. Fast forward to April of 2016 and we saw the release of the long awaited Oculus Rift, a headset designed to immerse users in a ‘virtual world’. This is big business - and it’s not all about gaming.

Meanwhile, sports brands around the world have been playing with VR to try and give supporters a whole new perspective. Last year, for instance, Manchester City unveiled the world’s very first 360-degree tunnel cam, promising previously unseen insights on key moments of the match. The idea of the ‘tunnel cam’ wasn’t new - but this was the first time that fans could actually take control of the camera and point it in any direction.   

The big Stateside sports franchises are also looking at this technology closely. Another big device in the virtual reality world is Samsung’s Gear VR. The NBA decided to team up with Samsung to broadcast the 2015/16 opener between New Orleans Pelicans and Golden State Warriors in VR. Multiple rigs gave viewers a 180-degree view of the game, delivering the experience live from the perspective of someone with the best view in the house.

So true VR is immersive: i.e. you put on a headset and switch on to a completely new reality. You’re also in control of what you view, thanks to complex camera setups that provide 180 or 360 degree footage. Simply by moving your head, you determine the perspective from which you view that footage. It’s the next best thing to being in the stadium yourself - or even being the cameraman.

Can we watch the Euros in immersive VR?

Head of UEFA TV is on record as saying, “It’s UEFA’s goal that one day the watching fan will be able to watch a match through immersive virtual reality”. What’s more, UEFA has also put Nokia’s £40,000 OZO VR cameras to work in order to capture 360-degree footage.  

But if you were to don your VR gaming device hoping for a live fully-immersive experience of a tournament match, you’d be disappointed. Full footage is being recorded, but isn’t available to fans throughout the tournament. In a way, this is the first ever virtual reality tournament - in that the footage at least exists, it’s just that we’re not allowed to see it (for the time being, at least). Think of it as a test: the existing tech is being put through its paces, and broadcasters will consider how to put it to work at future tournaments.

VR: risks and rewards for the future

For the big broadcasters, virtual reality is the newest, shiniest toy on the block. Adopting it fully in say, the Premier League would require massive investment - and this gives rise to risk. For one, there’s the very real risk that it will have only very niche appeal. Even for seasoned gamers comfortable with the technology, a VR set isn’t necessarily going to be the device of choice for watching the game. Very recently, CNBC reported the potential health risks associated with “strapping a large plastic brick over your eyes” and pointed to an unpleasant combination of anxiety, eyestrain and motion sickness, collectively referred to as “cybersickness”. It seems too much VR isn’t a good thing.

Nevertheless, the technology certainly promises to give a whole new perspective on sport. The ideal model for the future could be less along the lines of entire games watched in VR, and more in terms of dipping in and out of it; reliving favourite moments from lots of viewpoints and engaging in what’s happening in a very different way.