Live From the U.S. Open: NextVR, Bexel Tee Up Virtual-Reality Coverage for Fox Sports

The U.S. Open is getting the virtual-reality treatment, thanks to NextVR and Bexel, giving viewers a realistic sense of what it is like to be on a tee box and along the fairways at Chambers Bay Golf Course. Four streams of VR content are being delivered at speeds of 4-6 Mbps to hospitality areas on the course as well as to Fox Sports offices in Los Angeles, New York, and Vancouver.

David Cramer of NextVR with a Samsung GearVR unit at the U.S. Open.

David Cramer of NextVR with a Samsung Gear VR unit at the U.S. Open

“If you look at the history of our company, we built a compression algorithm used for 3D TV,” says David Cramer, SVP, corporate strategy, NextVR, “and one of the byproducts is that it enabled us to capture and transmit depth information live. This technology is incredibly powerful applied to VR, enabling us to render true-to-life stereoscopic 3D video on the fly.”

The result is a system that captures 6K images via Red Digital cameras mounted in 180-degree stereoscopic rigs and, instead of stitching the images together, creates depth, builds out the geometry of the image, and lays the pixels on top to create an image with depth.

With multiple rigs placed around the course, NextVR offered four live streams of content on the first day and expects to add more streams as the tournament progresses. Latency ranges from one to five seconds, depending on the number of streams offered and also where they are being delivered.

The ability to deliver live VR is one key for sports-content rightsholders to embrace the format. The other is a compelling business case. According to Cramer, NextVR’s strategy is to build a large content ecosystem within its portal and app, allowing sports fans to find channels of live and on-demand VR content. The NextVR portal could also be linked to rightsholders’ own apps and content portals to allow easy pass-through from one to the next.

“Some of the content could be accessible to all Fox viewers, or there could be a PPV or subscription model for premium content,” says Cramer. “Then there is also the opportunity for sponsorship or advertising and even e-commerce.”

He expects the months and years ahead to be filled with improvements in the experience. For example, the Samsung GearVR headset currently relies on a Samsung mobile device, and, as the resolution of mobile-device screens improves, so will the image quality of the VR experience. In addition, the computer chips that play such a pivotal role inside mobile phones will also improve, adding greater speed and performance for VR applications.

“We are right up against the limit of the specs in the phones, but, every six to 12 months, there is an exponential progression in terms of quality,” he points out. “So things like positional tracking and moving inside of the environment will have a more natural feel.”

Also, he notes HTC Vive, a headset developed by HTC and Valve that is due in the fourth quarter and will have a 1,200×1,080-pixel screen in front of each eye and refresh rates of 90 frames per second. It will also have a gyrosensor, accelerometer, and laser position sensor that will track the rotation of the user’s head on both axes to an accuracy of 0.1 degree. In addition, users will be able to walk around in a virtual environment as large as 15 x 15 ft. Cramer says the Sony Playstation VR headset called Morpheus will also be one to watch.

“Console-based and PC-based VR units have a leg up on mobile devices,” he says, adding,“but mobile devices will drive the market because there is broad familiarity with them.”

While the VR market is advancing quickly behind the scenes, Cramer says, the VR ecosystem is moving slowly publicly, which limits the number of bad VR experiences and curbs people’s ability to say that it won’t take off.

“It’s been good to move so slowly,” he says, noting that it also avoids comparisons with 3D: “In 3D, there was an incremental difference between 3D and the 2D broadcast, but there was a monumental investment in gigantic cameras and no clear monetization scheme. In our case, there is a small footprint, it is relatively inexpensive, and there is a demonstrably different viewing experience to generate new types of revenue.”

For example, for many events, one camera and an encoder is all that is required. And, at the U.S. Open, cameras can be easily moved from one location to the next, opening up the possibility to do things like follow a featured group throughout its round.

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