Sports Execs Trade VR for Augmented Reality at MIT Sloan Conference

Xconomy National — 

[Corrected, 3/7/17, 9:56am. See below] At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston last Friday, the NBA’s senior vice president of digital media, Melissa Brenner, got bullish on the potential for augmented reality inside NBA arenas. She was decidedly cooler on virtual reality: the clunky equipment, the lack of content people will pay for, the social isolation of strapping on a headset.

This was surprising, given the NBA’s early investment in VR content. The league began producing games in VR in the 2013-14 season; it’s now broadcasting one game per week in VR to its premium subscribers in a partnership with NextVR, a Southern California startup that raised an $80M Series B round last year. The league also has a deal with Oculus Rift to do a VR documentary on the 2016 NBA finals, voiced by Michael Jordan. It’s not for nothing the NBA has been called “the first major sport to embrace VR.” [An earlier version of this paragraph mistakenly stated that Samsung was a partner in the NBA’s VR project. The partnership was between the NBA and NextVR—Eds.]

But right now, the entertainment play Brenner is watching is in augmented reality. “We think there’s a real opportunity for fans to add augmented experiences to the game, whether it’s stats or directions to the bathroom,” said Brenner (pictured above, far right).

Brenner’s view lines up with that of other sports executives who spoke at the MIT Sloan conference, an annual gathering of some 3,000 people from tech, sports, finance and media. Augmented reality’s new fans include Jonathan Kraft of the New England Patriots ownership and Kenneth Gersh of MLB Advanced Media. They and others spoke about an opportunity to simplify the bewildering array of player stats and data in 21st century sports fandom. They want to make that data part of the live viewing experience, much like the yellow line that marks the first down in NFL broadcasts.

It’s something that could be done using only a phone, pointed at the field of play: “Just a bubble coming up over each player, telling you who’s on the field,” said Kraft, envisioning something that would likely be possible using, say, Google’s Project Tango.

Sports executives are also aligned with Apple chief executive Tim Cook, who has said AR is a bigger opportunity than VR. Cook has been issuing some uncharacteristically open statements about Apple’s plan to include AR features in the iPhone 8.

Virtual reality faces a chicken-and-egg problem: the content doesn’t spur consumers to buy an expensive (and unwieldy) product, but without the consumer base, it’s hard to justify the investment in content. At the sports analytics conference—with content rights holders who have the cash to make those kinds of investments in attendance—some tech executives were calling for a reboot.

“How do we reinvent VR from the bottom up,” Intel Sports Group General Manager James Carwana asked on a panel, “so that it clicks and people are like, ‘I’m gonna put this thing on my face?’”

Carwana isn’t the only tech executive who seems to be entering VR’s trough of disillusionment. At this year’s Mobile World Conference, which wrapped up in Barcelona last week, the number of VR devices represented was “down substantially,” according to one analyst.

Last year was the year AR pragmatism replaced VR hype among tech companies and investors. Magic Leap’s woes haven’t helped. But the worst sign of a lengthening VR winter may be that the live sports industry, with the most capital to invest in VR content and the most to gain from winning that battle, now thinks that AR—not VR—is the next big shiny object. This is in a U.S. media market where sports broadcast rights contracts are typically longer than they are in Europe, giving their parties less incentive to innovate.

VR investors may have to be extra patient—unless they’re putting money into plays like Strivr Labs, a startup in Palo Alto, CA, that has developed a VR training system for pro athletes and saw a handful of NFL teams quickly adopt its prototype technology, ahead of a $5 million Series A round last year.

Yet even Strivr is facing hurdles, said CEO Derek Belch, speaking on the same panel as Intel’s Carwana. “It’s the stigma, the gaming-ness of VR,” he said, relating a story about NFL veterans teasing a young quarterback who strapped on a headset inside a team’s training facility.

In terms of the fan experience, sports executives’ immediate attention may have shifted from VR to AR—but they remain interested for the long view.

Brenner, the NBA executive, said she and her colleagues continue to be amazed by the speed with which VR technology is progressing. At a recent visit to Oculus Rift, they tried out haptic feedback systems that offer the sensation of dribbling a ball or shooting. “They’re making seismic jumps every time we go,” she said.

Amherst College students Katie Bergamesca (left) and Sydney Watts try on Samsung Gear headsets at Intel’s booth at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. (Photo by Galen Moore)

Top photo courtesy of Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.