Interview courtesy of TVBEurope, a sibling Future brand, which serves the European broadcast industry by delivering up to the minute news, features and data. Interview by Colby Ramsey, additional reporting by Seth Barton.
The BBC Sport VR 2018 FIFA World Cup app (snappy title) is taking football fans right to the heart of the action this summer. The app, which is available in app stores supports PlayStation VR, as well as iOS, Android, Oculus Go and Samsung Gear VR headsets – to get viewers immersed in the action like never before.
Games were always supposed to be just part of the VR experience – much like games consoles providing extra value as DVD, Blu-ray and 4K players. However, killer apps for VR outside of games have been thin on the ground to date, but they don't come bigger than the World Cup.
The objective for the project was to allow people to experience the World Cup like never before, “using a different kind of experience that makes the most of this emerging technology,” Neil Hall, BBC head of product – Sport, tells TVBEurope.
“Essentially what fans or users will experience when they download the app, is access to a director’s box on the halfway line in the stadium in Moscow,” Hall explains. “You’re able to walk into the virtual reality lounge area, take a box seat and watch live action from the BBC’s 33 live games. When watching live games users have a choice of camera angles from the 180° live feed.”
Live games will be accompanied by real-time data for fans to keep up on statistics, and will also include the BBC’s match commentary: “It’s mocked up like a virtual living room so when you’re watching a game the live stats dashboard is on the coffee table in front of you to look down and interact with,” adds Hall.
If users arrive in the app when it’s not a live game moment, they’ll be able to watch all the highlights from the World Cup in all its 360° glory, on smartphones via Cardboard or on headsets for a more immersive experience.
“For us it’s a great opportunity to do an experiment like this around a big tournament with some fantastic content, and learn how the audience uses it,” he says. “We’re tracking everything, so it will be good to see the types of engagement we get from the headset version which will help us understand how better this technology could be used as part of our offering around major events in the future.”
The app, which has been rigorously tested over the last few weeks, builds on a 360 video experiment the BBC did around the Olympics in 2016. Two years on, we’re seeing another major event and another step forward in terms of the experience that the BBC is able to offer.
“There’s certainly been a lot of interest around it and it seems to be capturing people’s imagination, which is pleasing to see,” says Hall. “The interesting thing to see will be how they continue to use it throughout the tournament. There’s always huge audiences, both online and through traditional television, so it’s a question of how this emerging technology fits in with people’s personal preference of watching games. We hope it will go down well with younger audiences as they’re more well-versed at interacting with content in this way.”
“We feel like these events are really important to us as yardsticks for measuring how our services are progressing,” Hall concludes.
“Virtual reality is a very exciting domain for sports coverage and it feels right for us to be the space and experimenting so we can stay at the forefront of the sports broadcasting industry, providing richer and more immersive experiences for audiences.”
It's uncertain whether football, or any sport, can provide fresh impetus for VR, but alongside better-designed, lower-price headsets, such as Oculus Go, it's good to see that the medium is still trying to find the perfect combination of technology and content to bring in a true mass-market audience.