When confronted with new virtual reality (VR) content I regularly ask myself the question “Why VR?” and I often struggle to find an answer. I am a huge believer in virtual reality and the sense of presence it can give a person that no other medium can. The immersion is exceptional and when executed correctly you can create experiences that engender empathy, enlightenment and emotion. At VR City we’ve taken people to Dharamsala to sit with the Dalai Lama in his audience room; followed Justin Bieber onto the red carpet, to backstage and on stage at the MTV EMAs; and down the tunnel at Twickenham for Sam Warburton and Dylan Hartley’s coin toss. All these experiences placed people beyond the typically accessible and into new realms that even a fat bank balance and endless time to travel would fail to access. And it is that word, access, which gets my VR juices flowing. And rather than AAA, let’s call it VRA.
In the week of the Super Bowl there was a great deal of focus on how VR is going to transform the way we watch live sport. They say “a VR headset and an app is all you’ll need to be taken to the stadium to look around for yourself as the action unfolds, all without leaving the comfort of your home”. My problem with this is that you already get the very best view of a match on TV from its multitude of cameras, replays and stats so it’s hard to beat that as a viewing experience. Travel to the match and buy a ticket and you obviously lose this but what you gain is the atmosphere, the drinks before and after the match, the banter with your mates and ecstasy of celebrating a goal amongst thousands as they explode in joy at the exact same time. What you get is the ultimate in human bonding and mass participation. And although I am a huge advocate of VR, and believe that in time resolution will match our eye and haptics will match our touch, I’m not sure that live sport is what it should be focusing on right now. But give me VRA and this is when things start getting interesting.
Put us shoulder to shoulder with LeBron James as he practices his morning yoga; place us on the pitch as a player chats to an official about what he did on new year’s eve; or drop us on top of a team huddle in the bowels of an arena as the captain gees his team for a big final and we have experiences which cannot be found anywhere but in VR. The empathy, enlightenment and emotion garnered from feeling like you’re standing next to your heroes for the most exclusive moments in their lives, be that at their home or in the presence of thousands, is truly a transformative thing and one which should be explored and celebrated across sport. I’ve seen people go weak at the knees in their office as they stand on the Twickenham pitch surrounded by England players, I’ve heard people lean in quizzically as they’ve stood next to coaches giving NFL players instructions, and I’ve witnessed people duck and dive and even goad James DeGale as they spar with him in his North London gym. With access, VR is making the impossible possible, putting fans into their dream scenarios and creating memories that they will carry forever.
And with those dreams, tell them stories and you’re generating a sense of presence that leads to participation and empathy that cements a relationship. We could have fans in VR headsets feeling like they are part of the team, understanding what makes them tick, and as the brilliant Follow My Lead: The Story Of The NBA Finals does, make fans feel like they were in LeBron’s huddle before they won that 7th game. This is a whole new level of people connecting to their passions that has not been possible before. Not on TV, radio, cinema, not ever. So why VR? I’d say that is pretty good reason.