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Virtual Reality Is Just as Good as Being There … Or Is It?

"You actually feel like you’re there," but "it doesn’t replace being there." What?


With Oculus finally, officially joining the VR-hardware cacophony and announcing a launch window for the Oculus Rift, all eyes are on what content will make non-geeks actually want one of these things.

One contender for that content will be sports. At an event in San Francisco last night, NextVR executive chairman Brad Allen spoke on a panel about sports applications for VR and loaned attendees a Samsung Gear VR to sample the company’s work.

The demo was a reel of short video clips, recorded in 180 or 360 degrees so that viewers could turn to see more of the scene. It included clips from Nascar, soccer and ice hockey, three sports I almost never watch.

Even as a non-fan of those sports and a serial VR demo-er, though, I was surprised to find I wanted to keep watching after the demo was over. In particular, the hockey portion of the demo let me follow the puck around the rink as if I had an excellent, centrally-located seat, and following the action was noticeably different from watching on TV.

“You actually feel like you’re there,” Allen said on the panel, which was hosted by sports news aggregator Chat Sports.

But wait. If the experience is good enough to trump watching on TV, and I have a better simulated seat at home than I could afford at a real hockey game, why leave the house?

My first thought was that, as with the Periscopes of the pay-per-view Mayweather-Pacquaio boxing match, this was another potential case of new technology undermining the value of a live sports event. But there are some important differences.

First off, watching that fight through someone else’s phone being pointed at TV is a second-rate experience. What I saw in NextVR’s demo was polished and professional-looking, reflecting that the video company has been striking partnerships with both sports leagues and broadcasters.

And when I asked Allen about the potential impact of VR sports videos on stadium attendance, he said the realness of the experience still lacks the social element of sharing physical space with screaming fans.

“It doesn’t replace being there, the energy you get from being around everyone else,” Allen said. “There’s nothing like being at a game.”

“That being said, there are a billion people who are never going to get to sit court-side at a game,” he added. “$2,000 seat, they live in China, whatever it may be.”

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