April 18, 2017 8:57 pm JST
Calvin Koh

Asian sports could spark global virtual reality breakthrough

Technology may revolutionize viewing experience for fans

People can try out Vive virtual reality goggles, produced by Taiwan's HTC, at malls, theme parks and experience centers across Asia. © Reuters

The sandy shores of Copacabana Beach were thousands of miles away for most sports fans, but many were able to soak up the atmosphere at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games thanks to 300 hours of virtual reality coverage, from beach volleyball to the opening and closing ceremonies.

The Olympic Games is the kind of visually compelling, exclusive event that is considered perfect for VR content. As the technology evolves at exponential speed, it could change the media outlook for the next summer games in Tokyo in 2020, and the winter games in 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and in 2022 in Beijing.

After a failed outing in the 1990s VR recently resurfaced, drawing attention and investment from venture capitalists and technology giants such as Facebook, whose CEO Mark Zuckerberg has rightly pointed out that one of the most exciting opportunities for VR is in sports.

VR failed to live up to its potential two decades ago mainly because computers could not create graphics that were good enough to persuade users that they were in a different world. The technology also lacked the head, hand and movement tracking capabilities that make modern VR so exciting.

In the last two decades, however, VR technology has improved massively. The content now feels impressive and immersive, and many companies are hopeful that the technology needed to create a believable virtual world has arrived.

Asia is at the forefront of driving mass adoption of this technology. The best VR equipment, such as HTC's Vive goggles, can be found at theme parks, shopping malls and experience centers across the region, and there are more than 100,000 internet cafes offering VR sessions for just a few dollars.

Dozens of local manufacturers are making affordable VR adaptors for smartphones. The trick is to make VR accessible, inexpensive and widely available. These are all essential ingredients that are encouraging VR to go mainstream.

Sports organizations, broadcasters and tech companies all need to work together to make VR a crucial component for live sports events, starting with the fan experience. Already, live sport on TV is under pressure as subscribers increasingly ditch pay-TV for on-demand services, fans watch pirated streams and the millennial audience is distracted by social media.

At the same time, social media players are eyeing a piece of this pie -- Twitter, for example, has been buying sports rights and broadcasting live, and YouTube recently announced its live TV streaming service. ESPN, the face of sports broadcasting in many countries, lost more than a million subscribers from October to December 2016 alone, according to Nielsen, a global consumer monitoring group.

Audience driver

Yet, in an era of cord-cutting, live sports coverage remains the big driver of audiences for pay-TV operators. Advertisers and corporate sponsors still spend heavily on sporting events. Sports clubs, players, agents, and coaches are awash with cash. All parties are happy with the mutually beneficial model -- but it can only survive if armchair supporters continue to tune in.

Broadcasters must understand that their main profit driver -- the sports audience -- wants to get closer to the game and action. It is about being at the best seat in the stadium, the courtside and locker rooms, and having close-up views of favorite players. VR plays a crucial role in providing that immersive experience -- with the potential to invigorate the TV industry.

VR technology could make sports viewing a more meaningful experience for those who want to be near the action but are unable to travel long distances or pay hefty prices to witness large sporting events like the Olympics. Aside from consumers, it could also open the door to new forms of brand exposure for companies, translating into new advertising and sponsorship channels for traditional broadcasters. Plugged into a headset and immersed in the world of VR, audiences are also less distractible -- which is the winning ingredient in today's multiscreen world.

One of the arguments against the use of VR in sports is that it takes away the social element. Part of the pleasure of watching a game is having the company of family and friends. VR headsets offer only a solitary experience. But adding social functionality could make the experience a lot more interesting. Imagine interacting with your friends virtually at architect Kengo Kuma's new Tokyo stadium! The acquisition by Facebook of Oculus, a U.S. leader in VR technology, could help fix VR's social shortcomings.

Of course, no viewer wants to see the grey circular icon that suggests that the content is buffering; nobody wants to miss the winning shot or the tiebreaker. Because VR content is 360 degrees in nature and bandwidth is a lot higher, the connection speed has to be a lot faster. But as 5G telecommunications networks become more widespread in the next couple of years, this will become less of an issue.

Right now, VR has yet to manifest its full potential in sports. If the improvements keep coming, by the time millions of people have the hardware to watch the Olympics in VR, the product will be ready for prime time.

Calvin Koh is assistant project director for BroadcastAsia2017 for exhibition organizer UBM SES.

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