Why AR Will Eventually Beat VR in Adoption: The Case of 3 Trillion-Dollar Sports Industry
Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR and AR) have been a mainstay in science-fiction writing and cinema for decades. While they still possess a touch of the futuristic, nowadays these technologies are far from fantasy. According to Statista, the projected economic impact of VR/AR technologies will hit $15.6 billion before the year is out — and we can be sure that the sports industry is near the top of the list of industries contributing to and benefiting from this.
In a trillion-dollar arena in which the fans, athletes and organisations are already accustomed to new technologies, the incorporation of virtual and augmented reality is a natural progression. However, while VR and AR are used almost interchangeably, these reality-altering technologies are markedly different and, as such, have completely different use cases. Therefore, despite developments on both fronts, the question is which of them can most meaningfully enhance the sports industry at all levels.
The Same, but Different
The nexus of VR and AR is their ability to alter our perception of the world and transform our reality; it is also at this point that they diverge. The relationship between reality and the digital world offered by each technology is entirely different.
VR is fully immersive and transports the user into an artificial digital environment by cutting off from reality two or more of their senses, as evidenced in Google Cardboard or Oculus Rift. On the other hand, AR, as the term implies, offers an augmented version of the real world by adding digital elements, such as the overlay of relevant information or animated characters as in Pokémon Go.
“VR is fully immersive and transports the user into an artificial digital environment by cutting off from reality two or more of their senses. AR offers an augmented version of the real world by adding digital elements, such as the overlay of relevant information or animated characters”
Both of these experiences require the use of hardware. For VR to truly work, the user must have no sensory connection to reality or their immediate physical environment, and this is where headsets and, more recently, haptic gloves come into play. The goal is for the user to fully experience this alternative reality as if they were really there. As the purpose of AR is essentially to complement our current reality, it requires equipment that can integrate more seamlessly into daily life, such as a smartphone and head-mounted display such as AR glasses or goggles. Many argue that AR devices will eventually replace the smartphone.
While VR and AR technologies are clearly related, their differences have varying implications for their development and, more relevantly, their adoption.
The sports industry is one of the most fertile grounds for technological advancement, avoiding many of the traps of commercial consumer adoption, such as a lack of funding, infrastructure or vision. So, while many would reasonably classify VR and AR as disruptive technologies, within the context of the sports industry, ‘transformative’ and ‘sustaining’ would probably be more accurate designations.
“While many would reasonably classify VR and AR as disruptive technologies, within the context of the sports industry, ‘transformative’ and ‘sustaining’ would probably be more accurate designations”
In the NFL – where, according to Forbes, the average team is worth $2.57 billion – technology plays an essential role. Its SVP and CIO, Michelle McKenna-Doyle, makes the point that, while “we respect the traditions that got us here – the play on the field and the competition – we recognise that how the game is played and how our fans watch on TV and in person is evolving.” In other words, as fans become more sophisticated technology-wise, it makes sense that the experience should follow suit, both in terms of spectatorship and the game itself.
Perhaps the most obvious example of technology’s impact on the industry is the migration of broadcasters and fans from radio to television. And even this has advanced in leaps and bounds with the arrival of high-definition television, smartphones and tablets. These developments have had significant bearing on how content is delivered, as well as marketing, training and fan engagement – specifically how fans consume and interact with the sporting world. So, it stands to reason that VR and AR are just the next steps.
Virtual Reality: Ready for the Big League?
VR has the capacity to enhance the sports industry at all levels. As Travis Cloyd, co-founder of Sports Tech Media, puts it, “This is the first time in history when sports technology gives us the edge, not only in training or observation, but also in fan engagement.”
Consumers want to feel more involved and closer to the game and athletes, and VR offers them the potential to do this. It provides the ultimate solution for the sports fan who can’t afford tickets to a game or get as close to the action as they may like. With a headset, they can sit on the sidelines of any game or, better still, experience all of this from the player’s perspective.
“VR provides the ultimate solution for the sports fan who can’t afford tickets to a game or get as close to the action as they may like. With a headset, they can sit on the sidelines of any game or, better still, experience all of this from the player’s perspective”
This same experience can be used to help train players without risking injury. Players can analyse the game from different perspectives, add variables or, as an improvement on simply watching game footage back, recreate real scenarios. We’ve already seen the technology used in this way to train surgeons, military personnel, astronauts and pilots.
However, while these use cases have great potential and will undeniably have a market, in its current state, VR is just not there yet. The quality and experience simply cannot compete with standard broadcasting. In the case of live sports, Michael Ludden, Director of Product for Watson Developer Labs & AR/VR Labs at IBM, highlights what he calls an “incentivisation mismatch”. This essentially refers to the fact that stadiums and sporting arenas want and need to attract customers who will purchase not only tickets but also merchandise and products from the concession stands. VR, in this respect, is not good business. Moreover, the issue of cybersickness, which reportedly affects 25% to 40% of users, remains for the most part unresolved.
This is not to say that VR in sport is a pointless pursuit; it’s definitely a case of when and not if it will be adopted. As Tom Mainelli, IDC VP of Devices and AR/VR, says, “One of the things people will pay for is live sports in VR, but to capture, process and distribute sports is technically challenging. Once the technology and the storytelling catch up, though, people will pay money to be on the [virtual] sideline and move around the huddle – that’ll be a driver.”
Most Valuable Player: Augmented Reality
Like any emerging technology, including VR, AR still has developmental issues that need to be addressed. However, in terms of adoption and implementation in the sports industry, it has a marked advantage over VR. As Apple CEO Tim Cook asserts, “AR has the ability to amplify human performance instead of isolating humans.”
AR is complementary technology, capable of taking advantage of the traditional means of engagement, whether live or on television, and enhancing them. AR apps allow viewers – fans, coaches and commentators alike – to get real-time statistics on athletes, game analytics or information on brands and sponsors. In this regard, it’s a technology that adds value to the whole experience, both from a fan perspective and a business and marketing one.
Furthermore, AR is better equipped for social needs, as noted by Cook. Human beings are social creatures, and sports events are, culturally, a collective or community affair. As it exists currently, VR is an isolated experience that looks to replace our world. Conversely, AR allows us to engage collectively while adding information and personalising the experience.
“Human beings are social creatures, and sports events are, culturally, a collective or community affair. As it exists currently, VR is an isolated experience that looks to replace our world. Conversely, AR allows us to engage collectively while adding information and personalising the experience”
This is the same argument put forward by David MacQueen, Strategy Analytics’ Executive Director of Apps and Media. He says, “For me, AR has a far greater potential than VR, although, in the long term, I would expect the two technologies to merge into one. Why does AR have greater potential? VR is full immersion. You need to dedicate time, be in a safe environment, essentially pre-plan the activity.
“I don’t think VR will ever even get close to competing with TV or radio – you can’t have VR on ‘in the background’ while you do something else. It’s not a casual experience. On the other hand, AR has utility for almost everything, overlaying useful and relevant information on to the world around you. AR can be pervasive in a way that VR cannot.”
While, as a concept, VR is incredibly alluring and feeds into our sense of curiosity and wonder, it is not easily integrated into our actual lives. In contrast, AR, both within the context of sport and in general, seeks to amplify our reality and offers us a means of improving everyday processes.
Making a similar point with reference to Mixed Reality (MR), Aleissia Laidacker, Interaction Director at Magic Leap, argues that, “What a lot of [those] developers want to do is bring the interaction and the digital side of things to the physical world, because their intention is really that they want to interact with people, with the environment. That’s the dream of what they wanted from the beginning, but they got to do a lot of their R&D on the VR side because that platform existed first.”
The notion of creating an immersive world is still very exciting from both a business and entertainment standpoint. However, the type of technology that has the most appeal is that which is able to blend the digital world with reality.
“The notion of creating an immersive world is still very exciting from both a business and entertainment standpoint. However, the type of technology that has the most appeal is that which is able to blend the digital world with reality”
In an age in which the average person has what is essentially a supercomputer in their pocket, the technologies that are the most successful are those that become embedded in the fabric of our society to the extent that we cannot comprehend living without them. In the context of the sports industry, AR could well fit the bill.
It is telling that the potential use-cases for augmented reality (AR) keep coming thick and fast. Just about every sector imaginable has found an area in which it could benefit from overlaid information, with education being a major one. Take the BALIKSG app, for example, which uses AR to bring the history of the Singapore River to life for its visitors.
The app can overlay paintings or photographs from times gone by, or have virtual tour guides share information. It’s an example of thoroughly modern storytelling, presenting history creatively using historical documents and cutting edge technology. It seems only a matter of time before museums adopt similar products to bring displays to life.
Illustrations by Kseniya Forbender
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Margarita Khartanovich at [email protected]
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