How Virtual Reality Could Deliver A Stadium Experience for Sports Fans in a Post-COVID-19 World

Sports amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

As the world continues to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic, sports leagues around the globe have suspended their activities in the interest of public health and safety. The hiatus is felt most acutely by diehard sports fans who often used watching sports as an outlet to de-stress from their daily lives. Countless fans around the world are waiting with bated breath for the opportunity to pack their stadiums and cheer for the home team. Unfortunately, many medical professionals including White House advisor and public health expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, are speculating that fans may not be returning to stadiums until 2021 at the earliest. “If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, “We may have to go without this sport for this season.” Even the 2020 Summer Olympic games has been pushed back a year to July of 2021. As social distancing has become such a core part of this quarantine, it is not hard to see how packing a sports stadium to capacity in the near future would not only be reckless and irresponsible, it would likely be lethal.

Do Empty Stadiums Mean Low Viewership?

Some leagues are toying with the idea of kicking the season off as soon as possible by playing games in empty stadiums. It wouldn’t be the first time a major league game was played without spectators. Back in 2015, the Baltimore Orioles hosted the Chicago White Sox at the Camden Yard stadium with zero spectators due to local unrest and rioting. Covering the game from a press box, the New York Times described it as “an afternoon of eerie quiet and desolation.” They noted the awkward absence of excited cheers and the hollow echo produced by balls leaving bats. No one scrambled after a home run or foul ball to bring home as a souvenir. That game raises serious doubts whether or not sports will be able to retain their viewership for weeks or months while playing in front of empty seats. 

Growing Pains

To help alleviate the feeling of emptiness, some organizations have implemented temporary solutions such as deploying cardboard cutouts of cheering fans, silicone mannequins holding supportive signs, or even robotic drummers. It’s a tactic that merely seems to add an air of inauthenticity and odd artificiality to the games. It may work in the very short term but does not appear to be a probable long-term fix. Recently, FOX has begun piping-in crowd noises and cheers for Bundesliga soccer games which has divided fans on social media. FOX is also reportedly considering doing the same for NFL games once the season reconvenes, even going so far as to digitally superimposing a fake crowd into the stands. If done well, this could possibly be a viable option for the return of sports in a post COVID-19 world. If done poorly, games without fans present may feel sterile and unappealing.

High Tech Solutions

If fans won't be able to watch sports teams in person any time soon, many people are wondering if there is a way to bridge the gap between the stadium experience and home viewership. Is it possible that new virtual reality and audio technology could fill that void? Some organizations such as Manchester City soccer team and the Minnesota Vikings football team are already experimenting with virtual reality broadcasts. These VR broadcasts allow the viewer to watch the game while alternating between numerous angles including courtside seats, on-the-field action cameras, and stadium suites. Some VR broadcasts, such as Oculus Venues, even allow you to create and customize a digital avatar of yourself that sits courtside next to other VR viewers. You can use voice chat to interact with them and even watch as their avatar responds to their real-life motions. Unfortunately, these broadcasts require a virtual reality headset which can run anywhere from $200 to upwards of $1,000 just to get started. Fortunately, there may be new technologies available that can deliver the stadium experience to home viewers.  

Audio Augmented Reality

Audio Augmented Reality might be the perfect solution. According to Jessica Brillhart, Director of USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies MxR Lab, audio AR technology is already at a point where it could be developed for sporting purposes. Prior to working at USC’s labs, Brillhart developed a unique spatial audio platform called Traverse. Using the classic Elvis Presley track “Power of My Love” emitting from multiple angles and locations, visitors were able to walk around the open space and listen to the song as if they were in the studio while the band was recording. For example, moving closer (or farther) from where the drummer would be playing made the drums louder or quieter. Traverse made visitors feel as if the recorded audio was 3D and being played by a live band. The audio ‘reacted’ just as it does during a live performance based on where someone in the crowd might be standing.

Adapting to Sports

It is not too difficult to see how this type of technology and software could translate to a sporting environment. Brillhart mentions that players could be mic’d up and then mapped to the individual viewer’s room. That way the fan could move around the room and hear positionally-based, player specific audio. Other uses include networks taking the number of live viewers and creating a soundscape whose intensity matches the number of concurrent viewers. So if 50,000 people were watching a broadcast, the network could generate audio to match what it would sound like to be in a stadium with that many people.

“You can know with any sort of live stream, how many people are watching and say 10,000 people are watching a particular game. Knowing that data then increases the level of the crowd by x-amount,” said Brillhart. “So you actually hear a realistic interpretation of the data of the amount of people that are there. You’re finding new ways of thinking about what an audience is.”

The Future of Sports Viewership?

This kind of technology is here. It already exists. It just needs to be repurposed to suit the needs of sports fans and offered at a reasonable cost, where it could be a game changer for the future of sports viewership in the wake of the Coronavirus. The combination of virtual reality and audio augmented reality has the potential to deliver an entirely new experience for fans right in the comfort of their own home. It also opens up entirely new business opportunities and revenue streams for sports franchises and broadcasting networks.

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