When the Sacramento Kings’ $507 million new stadium opens in October, it will boast a hanging bundle of video screens 84 feet long, just shorter than the court. It will also have technology that's much less visible—the arena is being built with a high-capacity Wi-Fi system intended to give fans fast Internet access on their mobile devices, similar to what's offered by a home broadband connection.
One motivation for that is to give fans the ability to Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook their time at the game. But another was to enable experiments with virtual reality, says Paul Jacobs, vice chairman and co-owner of the team, and also executive chairman of mobile chipmaker Qualcomm. Fans could be given an up-close experience of the action no matter where they’re sitting, he says.
“Whether they're way up in the high seats or they're in a box but not sitting courtside, you still want to give them that courtside experience,” says Jacobs, who was Qualcomm’s CEO between 2005 and 2014.
There aren’t firm plans for exactly when virtual reality headsets or mobile VR viewers might be tested in the stands. Jacobs says that the technology will inevitably be part of the future of sports, so it made sense to create the necessary network infrastructure now.
One use case would be to offer instant replays using virtual reality to give fans relatively far from the action an up-close experience. In the long term, Jacobs says, some fans may even prefer to pay for a seat in a movie theater-like space inside a stadium with high-end VR headsets rather than a conventional seat with a poor view.
“They'd still be there to feel the roar of the crowd and be part of it but be watching in a slightly different way,” he says.
The Kings have invested in virtual reality video startup Voke. The team has also experimented with streaming action from the court to virtual-reality headsets outside the stadium. In 2015, a game against the Los Angeles Clippers was viewed by people at a school in Mumbai, India, a model Jacobs predicts could become common.
“You really could expand the reach of the league if everybody could basically feel like they were sitting courtside at a game,” says Jacobs. Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, has expressed similar views, saying that selling virtual courtside seats to people at home could bring in significant new revenues.
Galen Clavio, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, says that makes sense, although it might lead to wrangling between leagues, teams, and TV over the exact business model.
“There’s only a finite number of courtside seats,” he says. “If you can export 80 percent of that experience to people sitting in their homes, that could be a real market that doesn’t exist today.”
Delivering virtual courtside action to people either inside or outside a stadium requires significantly better network capacity than sports arenas typically have.
The Kings worked with Comcast give their new stadium a connection to the Internet the team says can handle 225,000 Instagram photos per second. Corporate networking companies Brocade and Ruckus wireless are building out the 1,000 Wi-Fi access points and other infrastructure needed to give fans’ devices access to that Internet link, and to connect up the stadium’s internal network.
Jacobs says that Qualcomm has already built a more advanced system at the company’s San Diego campus. It offers even higher data rates thanks to mini cellular towers dubbed “small cells.” That prototype system has a small cell placed every 12 seats and can provide multiple megabits of data for each seat at full load, he says.
Proving that virtual reality can meaningfully improve fans’ lives and teams’ balance sheets will require more than just building stadiums with better connectivity, though.
The first dedicated VR headsets have only just hit the market, and the experiences available for them are not all very polished (see “The Nauseating Disappointment of Oculus Rift”). Systems that use smartphones as the display in a VR headset are cheaper but less capable (see “Google Aims to Make VR Hardware Irrelevant Before It Even Gets Going”).
However, although Clavio personally thinks virtual reality has a good chance of catching on, he notes that sports teams and broadcast networks have experimented unsuccessfully with richer ways to capture action before.
“3-D television didn’t go anywhere because not enough people bought into it,” he says. “The question is whether virtual reality becomes a mass-installed item where you’ve got millions of people using headsets, or something more narrowly installed.”
Jacobs says that will be resolved as companies such as Qualcomm improve virtual-reality hardware to make it cheaper and offer a richer experience. “That stuff’s all going to happen, and it'll change your experience of sports,” he says.