The announcement by the BBC that it will be showing the 2018 football World Cup in virtual reality (VR) has understandably got people excited. Unfortunately, football fans will not be able to watch the tournament in the middle of the action alongside global superstars such as Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo, but they will be able to watch it from their very own virtual luxury private box in a Russian stadium.
Similar to the England football team’s World Cup hopes, there is probably a need to manage expectations around VR. The technology – much like Gareth Southgate’s squad – is still young, but potentially very exciting. There are examples of hugely innovative VR apps, but the market still needs time to grow and mature. Among those that use VR regularly, satisfaction with the technology is already relatively high. However, before people get themselves fully immersed in the world of VR, they need to be aware of some current technical challenges with the technology.
Despite becoming less of an issue for VR devices, motion sickness can still affect users. This is in part caused by the latency of VR devices being too high or variable. Anything that breaks the immersion for the user can cause a disparity between the brain’s expectations and what it perceives from the device. The disparity with the brain’s understanding of normal movement will start to cause nausea or dizziness. No one wants motion sickness on top of a nerve-shaking penalty shoot-out, but few football fans would want to miss out on the opportunity of seeing the action unfold from their very own virtual box!
As discussed in a previous blog on the topic, VR devices are addressing the latency challenge through improving the time it takes for the on-screen image to catch up with the user’s head movement. Industry research shows that this “motion-to-photons” latency should be consistently less than 20 milliseconds (ms) for a smooth and natural VR experience. All high-end VR devices, even mobile, achieve this today thanks to their performant technology such as the latest Arm Mali-G76 GPU and Mali-V76 VPU premium products that are designed to provide an even greater immersive VR experience for users. The challenge has now moved to features like immersive video (with 360 video lacking parallax), 6DoF tracking and better display technology.
The ergonomics of VR is another source of discomfort for users, with smaller and lighter headsets being one of the top priorities in the future. The bulky headsets, particularly among tethered VR devices, can restrict the usage time. In fact, the average playing time for VR users is still relatively short – just under 40 minutes, or in football terms – five minutes less than the first half. For smartphone VR users, the usage time is even lower – likely due to heat build-up in the device and the front-loaded weight balance too. It is likely that we will learn how this plays out through the BBC Sport World Cup app and how users react to watching a full football match in VR. The thrilling spectacle of watching the world’s best footballers in VR might mean that users last the full 90 minutes – or even beyond that in the knock-out stages of the tournament.
Focusing on the consumer take-up of VR, accessibility remains a concern. However, the BBC Sport VR app for the World Cup is free and highly accessible across multiple devices, such as Apple, Android, Google Cardboard, Oculus Go, Samsung Gear VR and Sony Playstation VR. Moreover, as explained in a previous VR blog, existing mobile devices already contain many of the sensors that VR require, from gyros to accelerometers, making VR more accessible to new consumers. Currently, the missing piece of the puzzle for mobile VR is positional head tracking.
Despite the challenges, the World Cup VR experience could be the landmark moment that tempts consumers to try and then buy VR devices. It is great to see organisations like the BBC giving it a go and immersing themselves into VR in new and interesting ways. Looking at VR users, they are becoming more interested in new experiences that they do not have the time or money to do in real-life, with virtual travel being one ‘stand-out’ experience. Experiencing the World Cup from a virtual private box is likely to be another one of these stand-out experiences. On a more basic level, experiencing football with others is always more fun, even if it’s a virtual crowd in a virtual stadium. If the BBC World Cup app allows football fans to cheer – or groan – with others, then it could be onto a winner!
At the moment VR is in good shape, but challenges remain in getting more people involved and experiencing it for themselves. The process for the widespread take-up of VR is likely to take a bit of time, but the BBC World Cup app could be the nugget of gold that showcases VR in action to a mass audience of football fans and gets more people excited about its potential. Users need to mindful of the technical challenges that remain with the technology, but there is no harm in trying VR, seeing how it feels, what works well, what works not so well. This is all part of the maturing process for the technology.
VR might not be at its full potential now, but in four years’ time – for example, at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar – it is highly likely that the technology will have developed significantly. Who knows what future opportunities VR might bring? VR users might be able to watch the football matches pitch side, from the team bench, from the commentary box with well-known personalities and former international footballers, or even from a footballer’s perspective on the pitch! Just like supporting England, I would urge people to believe in the technology and its potential and see how far it can go.
Stayed tuned for further updates in the next few weeks, as we will be talking about our own experience of watching a World Cup match live in VR through the BBC Sport World Cup VR app.