Thursday, May 28, 2020

VR and Sports in a Global Pandemic

The last 10 weeks of lockdown have been hard on everyone. If you are lucky to still have a job, you have been working from home. All students have been studying from home. The essential services workers have been keeping the world running and the healthcare workers have been fighting for us on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

One of the areas hit really hard are sports. It hit the professional leagues such as soccer,  basketball, hockey, and baseball. But it also hit the semi-pro and amateur sports. The Olympics have been postponed. The Boston Marathon has been postponed. Wimbledon has been canceled. The Tour de France has been canceled. Even your local gym has closed. And we don’t know if any of the sports are coming back this year and if they do, how that will look.

Enter virtual reality. An amazing technology looking for problems to solve. For years, VR was used just for games and entertainment. There is a niche market using it for training simulators (i.e. for pilots) and a few other business applications but let’s face it, VR has been mostly used by gamers so far.

But now, in a global pandemic, all professional leagues are shut down and the only sports available are e-sports. Overnight, what have been just video games became virtual reality stages of sporting battles. Virtual reality might be finding another application besides gaming. And as it turns out, there are different degrees of virtual reality blending with the physical one.

One of the early and most aggressive moves has been made by Formula 1. With all the 10 races so far canceled this year, F1 switched to virtual racing leveraging the official Formula 1 game by Codemasters. The kicker is that the F1 managed to recruit many of the actual professional drivers to race virtually. Since some of them are less experienced gamers than others, the F1 used the in-game handicapping to even out the field: “This includes running equal car performance with fixed setups, reduced vehicle damage, and optional anti-lock brakes and traction control for those less familiar with the game”, according to the F1 press release. 

The online fans experience in virtual races rivals what they could ever see on tv during the actual races. This is Virtual Reality!

Fast forward a few weeks and F1 is broadcasting its races online with visual quality and level of excitement comparable to the real thing. There are fewer crashes and none of them are game-stoppers for any of the drivers which is somewhat refreshing compared to frequent DNFs in the real races. And as it turns out, the Ferrari star Charles Leclerc of Monaco is a champion in the physical and virtual world. Perhaps you have not heard of Charles Leclerc but he is one of the two Ferrari drivers which makes him an official divinity in much of the world. Just check out this scene from the movie Rush. My point is, though, that this is not gaming. The fans watch the races for the excitement of sports.

This gaming teenager is actually George Russell (22), a professional driver for the Williams F1 team who won the last couple of the virtual F1 Grand Prix. 

Other leagues have been having a little more difficulty transitioning to virtual reality. The NHL staged virtual games, such as the matchup between the Washington Capitals and St. Louis Blues. In the NBA, the Phoenix Suns took on the Minnesota Timberwolves in a virtual arena. Even the Indy 500 staged a star-studded virtual race, featuring multiple former champions. While different leagues have seen varied traction with their VR events, it can be said that VR found its next application in virtual sporting events. But let’s face it, they are still using a VR game.

Mario Andretti, the Godfather of American motor racing, is practicing for the virtual 2020 Indy 500. He’s 80 now and he’s one of the most accomplished race car drivers of all times.

Yet, there are also VR platforms originating from the fitness world that blend virtual and physical reality. For example, professional cycling took things to the next level, using the virtual racing capabilities of the Zwift and Rouvy platforms that make it possible for riders to compete on a virtual course while riding their bicycles on trainers in their homes. The UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) organized a virtual Tour of Flanders and other races followed. 

The Virtual Tour of Flanders had the pro cyclists compete on the actual course…from their homes.

Here, the pros are competing not with their reflexes and gaming prowess but with what they actually do - their cycling legs. While the F1 drivers race virtually in rigs that resemble their car cockpits and while they probably benefit from their real-life racing expertise, an amateur non-racer might beat them. When biking on a trainer, the professional athletes will blow away any amateur. Always. This is a different type of virtual reality that blends with the physical one.

Rowing, running, and even triathlon have been staging similar blended events that combine the virtual and physical realities leveraging a training platform. Using VR to measure actual physical strengths or endurance to stage a race that challenges the competitors and excites the fans is a very different application than gaming. While the term augmented reality (AR) comes to mind, the way we have been using it so far doesn’t really fit. This is not a virtual data overlay on the physicals reality view. Instead, this is about combining very different virtual and physical environments to create something quite compelling for participants and spectators alike.

Competitors from more than 115 nations register for IRONMAN VR1 virtual event

No, I don’t believe that virtual sports will replace the excitement of going to see a game or a race. But, they are a form of entertainment that is giving VR technology another application. Watching a virtual cycling race attracts a different audience than watching a League of Legends tournament. And while a virtual Indy 500 might never replace the excitement of the real thing, there is definitely excitement involved.

That’s a good thing for sports, the athletes, the fans, the sponsors, and the virtual reality technology.