The Big Idea: Virtual reality and sporting events

Virtual reality technology may change the way we watch sports.

- Adam Graves played 16 years in the National Hockey League, made one all-star team, won two Stanley Cups, tallied 616 points and saw the New York Rangers retire his number. But until one night in early March, he never stood between the pipes with no defensemen in front of him and tried to stop a professional slap shot.

"It feels like you're going to get hit and it's so real," Graves said. "You're sitting up there like you're Henrik [Lundquist] and the puck's coming at you."

The Rangers allowed Graves this opportunity 13 years after his retirement through a virtual reality headset running a customized hockey simulator for which actual Rangers launched actual shots at a net on the ice at Madison Square Garden.

"It makes you think: How could you apply this to some sort of developmental tool to really enhance people's awareness on the ice?" Graves said.

While Graves and many others in the realm of professional sports envision this technology coaching athletes -- young and old, amateur and professional -- those who design these systems see the more revolutionary sports application of VR improving the fan's experience.

"You and I could have a side conversation where we look between us and in miniature, there are the players going through that play again," NYU Professor of Computer Science Ken Perlin said. "We could pull it back and say: What about that? That will be normal."

Perlin's Ph.D. students built a program in which two individuals with smart phones strapped over their eyes see themselves as cartoon figures in a cartoon environment, and a third individual wearing a VR headset in a different room sees those two cartoon people in miniature moving about on a table in front of him.

Apply a more advanced version of that program to a professional sports game, and a couple of guys in the nosebleeds can watch and pause and slow down replays and live game action from any perspective they choose.

"Let me see the trajectory of that. Was that in bounds? Was that out of bounds?" Perlin said. "And this physical object, because it's being tracked, could be part of a larger conversation that everybody has, talking to each other and using this simulation."

The gyros and accelerometers, graphics hardware, high-resolution screens and wireless communication crammed into our smart phones arm us with much of the hardware we need to watch a game in this way right now. But in the next six years, Perlin says, "it's a pair of sunglasses, which I think could reasonably happen in that time frame," and in 25 years, a pair of contacts installed at birth.

"At that point, little children learning to walk will have the power-up of being able to say: 'Oh, third-person point of view learning to walk,'" Perlin said. "Children we'll be able to do things we'll never be able to do."

While this sort of virtual reality could standardize the viewing experience from every seat in the building, if everyone is immersed in the image on their headsets, it seems possible VR might also take something away from seeing a game in person. The communal experience of attending a sporting event relies as much on the actual game-play as the location of your seat, those in your section, the weather, the sounds, the smells and the price of a beer. Perlin argues virtual reality could enrich all of those factors, unlocking new ways for large groups of people to experience events together in person.

"And all of our own particular customized favorite data overlay to make our predictions, analyze and have our conversations with each other while it's happening," Perlin said. "We don't like to just call this virtual reality. Because eventually, it's just going to be reality."

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