BT and Sky have said that virtual reality is being held back by the same issues that ultimately doomed 3D TV, but that the viewing format does have a future.
Sky launched a dedicated 3D TV channel back in 2010, but closed it five years later when it realised the technology was not going to catch on.
The BT Sport app has offered a 360-degree VR viewing experience for football matches since 2017, a feature I’ve never been totally convinced by. BT stuck its neck out further last year, showing the FA Cup final in 8K VR.
“I don’t believe 360 is a large viewing event for people to watch together. Sport’s a social viewing experience. 3D had its challenges because you’re creating a barrier between you and the next person,” Jamie Hindhaugh, BT Sport’s chief operating officer, said at the Westminster Media Forum in February.
If you’ve never tried VR before, it requires a box-like headset to be strapped to your face. As well as cutting you off from the surrounding environment, it can be a strain on your eyes.
“[Sky] launched 3D, it was dreadful,” said Sky Sports’ executive director of content, Steve Smith, at the same event. “There was always a barrier, I think Jamie touched on it, the barrier of putting something between yourselves and the viewer, it didn’t work.
“What do we learn from that, I think that plays back into my thoughts about where we go next in terms of AR and VR? I think we are at the very early stages of that, but that barrier of a headset, to a certain generation, is always going to be there.”
However, in spite of these issues, BT Sport doesn’t believe that VR will go the same way as 3D TV. It’s just about using it the right way.
“What 360 does do and what we have done with our BT Sport app … is it enables you to have live highlights, it enables you to use the magic window and deliver in that over IP, which means you can personalise your own replays.
“So within our timeline now you can go back to any goal scored during the match … you can either watch the replay that we’ve curated, or you can actually go in, select the 360 camera and curate your own replay.”
You can do this without a VR headset, in ‘Smartphone View’, but the effect is nowhere near as compelling.
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If you do have a headset though, the process can be a faff, requiring you to insert your phone into your headset and pull it around your head. However, if you’re a fan of one of the teams that’s playing (and scoring), it is quite fun to see how the crowd reacts when the ball hits the back of the net.
Watching key highlights in VR is also far more appealing than trying to view an entire game this way.
According to Hindhaugh, the BT Sport app’s VR highlights feature is a favourite amongst the customers who actually use it.
“Our highest NPS (net promoter score) for BT Sport are people who use the BT Sport app and the 360. Now I said ‘highest NPS’ because what I didn’t say is ‘highest volume’. But highest NPS is really important, getting people to talk about your product is really important.”
Smith hinted that Sky is closely monitoring the situation, saying: “What does the customer want? How do we change what we do to drive customer needs? Sometimes it’s serve customer needs, sometimes it’s drive customer needs.”
He continued: “I think sport will continue to be a driver of innovation … there will be innovation behind the scenes that nobody sees, in terms of delivery … the way that we deliver and create content has got cheaper in certain ways … but you’ve got to understand where you are going to invest your money for your customer. How do we focus on the big events and how do we drive big events?”
Then, of course, there are Sky’s main products: Sky Q and Now TV.
“And then there’s the innovation on-screen … I say on screen, I should say on screens, because we look to deliver on all different platforms,” Smith added.
“What’s important with the different platforms is you’re delivering to different audiences, so you’ve got to tailor the tone of your content, you’ve got to tailor the way that content is put together and you’ve got to understand your audiences.”
Perhaps because of what happened with 3D, Sky is being far more cautious with VR than BT has been, but it will be keeping an eye on the technology and, most likely, how BT Sport handles it.
Have you ever watched live sports in VR? Let us know your thoughts by tweeting us @TrustedReviews.