The Future of Football From the Couch: A Look at Virtual Reality

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Virtual reality is still an emerging technology, but it could have a significant impact in how football fans interact with the game when they aren't actually in attendance at the stadium.

The Green Bay Packers have increased capacity at Lambeau Field fairly substantially in the recent past, and they've also been a pretty good team over that same stretch. This has led to the team hosting several home playoff games, and to the previously unthinkable scenario wherein they have actually had trouble selling out some of those games.*

*Yes, a large chunk of this can be attributed to their incredibly stupid playoff ticketing policy for season ticket holders which involves a lot of up-front money and, if they don't get a 2nd home game, that money rolling over into next year's season ticket package instead of being refunded. They've change that policy for the upcoming year to a system that charges ticket-holders only when a home game is assured. This is fairer, but also creates a scenario where fans will be able to accurately predict the weather for a given playoff game game before they purchase. The best time for the Packers to sell playoff tickets from their perspective is probably "no later than November 15th".

The fact is that Packer playoff games can be extremely unpleasant. I've been to some cold games and they stick with you for awhile. I love seeing live football as long as it's 20 degrees or above, but while snow is glorious, sub-zero games are just painful.

APC's Brendan Kennedy wrote on this recently, focusing mainly on what the live experience can add to draw people out to the stadium. I want to talk about a bit of technology that's still in its early stages, but that I suspect will worm its way into sports, and in particular football, sometime soon. Probably sooner than anyone thinks.

I love the stadium experience. I think you get to see more of the game, I love the crowd as long as they're not doing the wave, I love the awe that a big, full stadium generates in me when I walk in. The big question is, what happens when you can experience all of that in your living room? If you're not into video games at all you might find this notion far-fetched. If you are, you probably know where I'm going with this: The Oculus Rift.*

*Yes, and Project Morpheus and a few others.

The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset, initially developed as a Kickstarter project, and recently purchased for $2 billion by Facebook. The Oculus Rift was designed primarily as a video gaming platform, and it's largely only been covered by video gaming media or occasionally as a mild curiosity by more mainstream outlets, but it's worth noting that when Facebook made the acquisition, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the following:

But this is just the start. After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face -- just by putting on goggles in your home.

You may be rolling your eyes at the notion of virtual reality in the first place, but a lot has changed since The Lawnmower Man. Many of the big impediments to VR have been solved through better technology. The headsets are now extremely light. Before HDTVs the experience was never real or immersive enough. With modern screens there is enough pixel density to completely fool your eyes. Perhaps most importantly, head tracking is now instantaneous enough that people no longer vomit due to the lag. In short, by all accounts Oculus already works.

Here is one account of an Oculus Game of Thrones tech demo. Here is a review of an Oculus game called "Lucky's Tale".

And it's not even very expensive. You can get a development kit for $350, and there are already a few cameras out there to shoot footage for it.

So how much would you pay for a virtual seat in Lambeau Field? Right on the 50, maybe ten rows up to see over the benches a little better. Actually, forget about one seat. How much would you pay to hop to whatever seat is best for the situation? To hop from 20 yard line to 20 yard line? To jump up into the upper levels? To hover over the game in the all-22 camera. Maybe one day to see exactly what the quarterback is seeing in 360 degrees?

And when the Packers can sell one seat thousands of times virtually, how many people will still make the trip in reality? I can actually imagine a scenario where the Packers drastically and happily lower actual ticket prices just to get some people in the stadium while still selling hundreds of thousands of virtual seats.

A lot of this is obviously speculation, but I think it's a mistake to assume that the technology in your living room does not continue to improve. Maybe VR will prove to be a fad just like 3D television. People have been resistant to wearing special glasses in their own homes before, after all, but I'm guessing that this will actually catch on. The tech is cheap, installing this at a sporting event seems relatively easy* and I assume that any sports league, and especially the NFL, could charge a small fortune for it.

*Compare it to filming some kind of actual television show where sets and framing are built for a normal 2D experience. The entire process would need reimagining. Not so with sports, where 3D arenas already exist.

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