Experts describe how VR and Intel 360-degree replay technologies are making NCAA’s Big Dance more engaging than ever before.
Imagine sitting courtside during March Madness, close enough to see sweat beads ripple down the muscles of student athletes racing up and down the court. Picture seeing a player’s shot from every imaginable angle, or hearing the squeak of a couple dozen sneakers as NCAA basketball’s biggest event unfolds in front of you.
But you’re not at the game; instead, you’re on your couch.
Virtual reality and 360-degree replay technologies used during March Madness will transform fans from spectators to participants. Where before the audience was passive and more of a consumer of sports, it can now be an active participant in the game experience, courtesy of Intel, a corporate partner of the NCAA.
Instead of just watching the traditional broadcast on TV, where the viewers see what the cameramen see, audiences can buy a “virtual ticket” which gives them a virtual reality (VR) experience unlike sitting in the stands or watching on TV. For Turner and CBS it’s a new layer of entertainment to offer viewers; for fans, it’s an invitation to feel the pounding energy from the court – without actually being at the event.
Power to the People
“We are putting the control in to the hands of the fans to decide,” said David Aufhauser, managing director of strategy and product for Intel Sports Group (ISG). “Do they want to jump around from angle to angle, camera to camera, seat to seat, or do they want to lean back and just enjoy a full production in VR?”
Intel True VR technology (formerly called Voke) enables viewers with a Gear VR headset to watch Sweet 16, Elite 8, NCAA Final Four National Semifinals and National Championship games in VR.
Fans can download the NCAA March Madness Live VR app, managed by Turner Sports, from from the Oculus store. VR Premium Tickets range from Silver ($1.99 for a single game) where fans sit in a courtside in a virtual static spot with 180-degree live stream, to Gold ($2.99 per game or $7.99 for all six games), a fully produced VR broadcast which gives fans the feeling of sitting courtside from multiple camera angles, with live sound and dedicated game commentary.
The app also provides access to the full tournament bracket with enhanced video highlights from each game, virtual stats and scoreboards.
For those without a virtual ticket, NCAA March Madness Live is presenting Facebook 360 highlights – from the games produced with Intel True VR – on the NCAA March Madness Facebook page.
Aufhauser said VR is the next wave of engagement in live sports, enabling content owners to build entirely new experiences in addition to their traditional production offerings.
To capture the game in VR, seven camera “pods” – each equipped with six pairs of lenses (or 12 cameras) – are set up in various locations around the arena. Everything – from capture to coloring and stitching to encoding – is all done live onsite. The feed is then sent to the cloud, and over the internet to fans – all in real time.
“It gives fans a completely new way to experience content,” said Aufhauser. “We can enable fans to do things that they can’t do watching TV, and to do things they can’t do even if they’re at the game.”
A New Level of Replay
During the NCAA Final Four National Semifinals and the National Championship games in Phoenix, Intel’s 360 Replay technology will take the ability to re-experience a moment from a sweeping array of angles.
“We now have the ability to show the fans any and every possible angle from that unforgettable play, the foul that changed the game, or that last-second buzzer-beater,” said Preston Phillips, director of business development for the Intel Sports Group.
To capture a moment from every angle is no small feat. For a month, Phillips said a team has been getting the University of Phoenix stadium ready, which including installing 28 5K ultra-high-definition cameras and laying five miles of fiber-optic cables.
The cameras, installed in the 300-level around the arena, capture millions of voxels (3D pixels), then send the data through the fiber optic cables to an onsite production center. The data is quickly rendered, compiling the voxels from each camera angle into a single seamless moment.
“We can essentially be anywhere and show you anything that’s happening on the court,” said Phillips.
Currently rendering takes three to five minutes, but Phillips said the ultimate goal of the technology is to capture an entire game in 360-degree and have every moment replay-able in real time.
In addition to being played on the videoboard and shared across social media, Intel 360 Replay technology is currently used in almost a dozen stadiums worldwide. It has become a standard part of the broadcast and used in partnership with the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Dodgers, to name a few. In Europe, the tech is also in FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium and Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.
Whether it’s VR or 360-degree technology, the way the world watches live sports is changing, becoming immersive and experiential, said Phillips.
“It’s a really exciting time to be a sports fan,” he said.