Inside Slant: The promise of virtual reality for NFL fans

In the near future, virtual reality technology promises to help fans experience sports as if they are on the field. Otoy

(Another in an Inside Slant series on innovation in and around the NFL. For all Inside Slant posts, follow this link.)

Perhaps you've read or heard about the NFL's dip into virtual reality training. The Dallas Cowboys are on it. So are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who hope it can speed quarterback Jameis Winston's development. Other teams see similar value in creating a lifelike environment for players by having them wear custom vision visors to train off the field.

These systems, and their successors, promise an incremental impact on the game. Public interest in them, however, has hidden the sea change that virtual reality augurs for another area of the sport.

Within a few years, advocates predict, fans of the NFL and other leagues will have the option to "attend" games while sitting at home or anywhere else in the world. They'll have a choice of stadium position -- 50-yard line, field-level sideline, or perhaps right behind the quarterback -- and will be able to toggle the view using a tablet. The Los Angeles-based OTOY Inc. tested an early version of the technology at an outdoor NHL game in February, receiving positive reviews, and the NFL acknowledged it is exploring the possibilities as well.

"It would be crazy to think that this isn't coming to the landscape within the next two to five years," said Jules Urbach, the CEO of OTOY.

This undertaking comes at a time when virtual reality tools are breaching the consumer mainstream. Google is marketing a visor called Cardboard. Facebook recently purchased the company that developed the Oculus Rift.

Quarterbacks could don a visor at home to practice reading defenses while surrounded by virtual pass-rushers and ever-shifting coverages, but an unlimited number of people could connect to the kind of high-quality, 360-degree HD video and audio streams this technology would provide during games. It has the potential to fundamentally change the way live sports action is consumed.

Instead of viewing games on a one-dimensional television screen, fans would watch -- and feel -- the game as if they were in the stadium. Ideally, the action could be viewed without a visor or glasses and instead as a hologram. (Think the Dejarik game between Chewbacca and R2-D2 in "Star Wars," Urbach said.)

There's at least one pretty conflict here, of course. The NFL already struggles in some markets to fill stadiums, with many fans preferring a superior (and cheaper) product from television. It's worth wondering how eager the NFL would be to offer another incentive to stay away from the stadium. The league declined to make an executive available for comment, citing proprietary reasons, but OTOY's Urbach suggested the markets are separate.

"We've talked with everyone in this space, and no one has expressed that objection," he said. "These are the customers who probably were going to watch the game on television anyway and would be willing to pay a premium to feel like they're there. That's where this market is and where it's going, and I don't think anyone would turn that down."

Said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy: "We have been actively evaluating virtual reality technologies and potential applicability both for our fans and for football operations. Both the technology and content production and distribution are in the early development stage but look promising."

In February, as a test run, OTOY rigged up Levi's Stadium, site of the NHL's Outdoor Series game between the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks. OTOY installed an Immersive Media HEX camera on the glass, which used six lenses to give users a 360-degree view radius at speeds and quality far beyond HD television. Two Freedom 360 VR camera rigs also contributed images. (The photograph at the top of this post is a screengrab of what viewers saw through their visors.)

The NHL was pleased with the results, and NHL chief technology officer Peter DelGiacco called it "very successful." But for OTOY, the test was as much about building a multi-sport platform as anything else.

"Everything we did with that game is applicable to football and basketball as well," Urbach said. "We used it as a basis to see how it applies in other sports."

Indeed, football's visceral nature, and the NFL's dominant position in the sports marketplace, probably makes it the most attractive landing spot for virtual reality innovation. And according to one former player, the NFL also stands to benefit from the first-person perspective virtual reality should eventually provide.

Retired punter Chris Kluwe has a deep interest in emerging technology. He has experimented with Google Glass during practice sessions and gave a talk on similar topics at the annual TED conference. A likely consequence of virtual reality, Kluwe said, will be a greater level of empathy for players -- and perhaps a lowered intensity of invective from fans.

"When you watch a football game from a separated view, you don't get a true sensation of the immediacy and violence of the physical impact," Kluwe said. "It's totally different when you're in the middle of that. All of a sudden the crowd is around you, there are bodies flying in a whirlwind. If the NFL puts these systems in place to capture the perspective of a player, people will find it pretty interesting, I think, but then they would probably also look at it and say, 'This is a lot harder than we thought.'"

So while virtual reality certainly will help players and coaches prepare for games, the possibilities for the fan experience would seem to carry more impact.

"You figure that this will be adopted by a couple of teams early on, and if you see improvement from those players, you'll see everyone wanting a piece of it," Kluwe said. "But the most splashy use of this is with the fan viewing experience. Eventually, fans will be offered the chance to be Tom Brady or Marshawn Lynch during the game, or at least see and experience it from their perspective. That's something you figure lots of people would want."

And it's coming to a virtual stadium near you, probably in a matter of a year or two.