If you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume that you are, indeed, ready for some football. The public’s insatiable appetite for gridiron action began anew on Sunday, Sept. 11, with the National Football League (NFL) kicking off its 51st season of competition. Despite being firmly rooted in tradition, football as a sport has always been highly technological in nature, with teams seeking out even the most minute performance booster as a way to gain an edge on the competition.
What’s true between the yard markers is also true off the field, where teams compete with each to attract a fanbase, sell tickets and merchandise, and generally penetrate the public consciousness through positive coverage and word of mouth. The most innovative franchises are always on the lookout for the next tool to generate audience engagement, which in the end increases revenue.
What’s good for the NFL can also be great for other businesses, even those that don’t own a day of the week and reap billions of dollars in profit per year. Here are 5 Ways the NFL is leading the way in Augmented and Virtual Reality for businesses:
Though you may not realize it, the NFL has been a leader in adopting Augmented Reality tech — and the results have been right under your nose every time you’ve watched a game. I’m talking about the yellow “first down line” you see during each and every telecast. In addition to denoting the spot on the field the offensive team needs to reach to earn a first down, this unobtrusive, barely there graphic is also one of the first commercial applications of AR.
The line is generated by the 1st & Ten system, which uses a combination of technologies to overlay the live on-the-field image with the first down line. In recent years, additional information has been added, allowing for the display of text and other images on the field of play. It seems simple, but as the Wikipedia page explains, the tech is far out there: “The system makes use of a combination of motion sensors mounted on the broadcast cameras to record what they are viewing, and/or the use of match-moving computer graphics technology and an enhanced version of chroma key or ‘green screen’ technology.”
And that yellow line is but one application of the technology. “In extreme situations, such as snowstorm or blizzard conditions, an entire virtual field with yard and boundary markers can be projected onto the field in order to allow league officials, broadcasters and viewers some way to follow action when all field markings are obscured by snow, fog or mud.”
The development of the first down line is an excellent case study for businesses looking for ways to adopt AR and VR solutions but are unsure of how to go about it. In the NFL’s case, they identified a specific problem — It’s hard to know where the first down marker is when watching a game on TV — and then used a new technology to arrive at what is, in the end, a fairly simple solution. It’s a two-step process that can benefit any business, even those without billions of dollars in revenue. And as prices drop further, you can expect all kinds of innovative AR enhancements to be offered by companies of all sizes across many industries.
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality systems are ideal for training employees, and the NFL is no exception. Last year, the Dallas Cowboys became the first NFL team to experiment with VR, setting up a facility that uses Oculus headsets to put players inside special game tape shot with 360-degree cameras. Head coach Jason Garrett told ESPN at the time, “It’s interesting because it gives you the chance from behind to see all 11 guys on offense and all 11 guys on defense but from a closer angle. Oftentimes you have to kind of pull yourself away to get the all-22 shot. This allows you to get a little closer so you can coach better. You can see hand placement. You see where they have their feet, where they have their eyes. I think that’s important. You can look at that and coach them better being that much closer to the action.”
There are other advantages, as well. The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement sets strict limits on how much time the players are permitted to practice in full pads. It makes sense from a safety standpoint, but the rule also hinders players who can benefit from additional reps. VR training allows teams to circumvent practice limits, giving players far more time to prepare for an upcoming opponent.
The applications of VR training for businesses outside of sports are numerous and varied, but are already seeing adoption in professions where there is an inherent danger (the police force and the military are both early adopters of the technology), or the cost of training can be cut dramatically by the use of VR.
But it’s not just on the field performance that NFL teams are after. Recently, the league began exploring using a VR experience to aid with diversity training. As discussed in the above video, the league has been experimenting with putting players in a situation where they are playing a black female who is being yelled at by a white male. When the player holds his arms in front of the VR headset, he sees the arms of a woman instead of his own — which hopefully reinforces the feeling of empathy the situation can inspire.
“Feeling prejudice by walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is what VR was made for,” Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, told USA Today during an April 2016 interview. In the same USA Today story, NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent says, “VR can deliver on real social issues that allow people to be better … We want to be known as the best place to work.”
Remember, the NFL’s influence on other businesses is enormous, even if most people don’t think of the league in this way. For example, the NFL has long had something called the “Rooney Rule,” which encourages diversity in hiring by requiring teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs. It is sometimes cited as an example of affirmative action, though there is no quota or preference given to minorities in the hiring of candidates. Social Media site Pinterest recently adopted this rule in its own hiring practices, showing just how far the NFL’s influence extends.
As for all us couch-bound fans, the way we view a sporting event is about to change dramatically. For current broadcasts, the production crew points a set number of cameras at the playing field, while a director sits in a control room and selects the shots that make it on the air. The viewer gets one angle at a time, which has worked up until now, but in the near future people will wonder how we ever sat through these “boring” broadcasts. Just check out the above video showing off what watching a game with the Microsoft Hololens might be like, and you’ll see what I mean.
The future of sports broadcasting — and all media, really — is in an interactive experience that can be shared with friends, even over long distances. If the prognostications are correct, there will soon be available a feed of a live NFL game that the viewer will experience from the perfect 50 yard line vantage point. The viewer can change their location — maybe hover over the action like a god, or stand on the sidelines peeking over the coaches shoulder — and even jump into a POV view of a player during replays. That’s the promise of Virtual Reality that the NFL hopes to make a reality in the coming years.
The league has thus far only dipped a toe in the virtual water, partnering with NextVR to capture 3 games from the 2015 season in VR, which fans were then able to check (viewable from five different vantage points) at the NFL Experience attraction at last year’s Super Bowl. For their part, NextVR executive chairman Brad Allen told Fortune Magazine that the company was ready to broadcast games as they happen. “We’re ready to livestream any event today,” he said. “If the NFL says yes, we could do it next season.”
Let’s hope the NFL says yes!
Joe Bardi is Marxent’s Senior Content Strategist, and he was born ready for some football.
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Virtual Reality is constantly changing and there is much to learn. Here is a supplemental list of VR/AR resources for you to enjoy and share.
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