Virtual Reality In Sports

Via Sports Score, an article on the growing use and potential for virtual reality in sports and sports-related activities:

For our second interview in the series, Julian Moore caught up with leading VR & AR expert, Rupert Harris, in the tranquil (and incongruously) old world setting of the Somerset House courtyard. Rupert is the founder of Animal Vegetable Mineral, a leading London-based production company specialising in immersive interactive experiences, whose phenomenal client base includes Tottenham Hotspur FC, Bear Grylls and Ai Weiwei.

We delved into the mind-blowing worlds of VR and AR, but without losing touch altogether with the physical real worlds of sport and entertainment. An hour of great coffee and truly cutting-edge technology!

“Imagine a viewing experience where fans viewpoints weren’t limited by where you could place a camera. Imagine being able to move around the pitch of a live sports event – to watch a penalty from inside the goal or run alongside your favourite player – and that’s obviously a hugely exciting development.”

1. What is your background in the sports & media industry?

Having worked as a news assistant then researcher at ITN, my breakthrough into the sports industry came with a job at IMG. I worked there on the long-running TV magazine series, ‘Futbol Mundial’, and on a wide range of other sports productions, including the 1998 documentary about the Jamaican football team, ‘The Reggae Boyz’.

I left IMG in 2005 to start a role as Head of TV for Magic Lantern, a start-up digital company that focused on interactive content. Amongst other things, we produced the multi award-winning documentary portal for Channel 4 called ‘Four Docs’. Magic Lantern produced interactive and educational content for online distribution, which was a relatively new concept at the time. We also produced some early prototypes for interactive drama content.

I left Magic Lantern in 2005 to join the BBC as series producer on a ground breaking augmented reality TV series called ‘Bamzooki’, which – looking back – was the first true Esport to be aired on UK TV. The show really was a first of its kind and way ahead of its time.

The Bamzooki concept involved downloadable software children could use to build virtual ‘pets’ online. The Zooks – as they were called – were created from various building blocks with artificial intelligence built in to drive motion and behavior. Kids would then test their Zooks in various online environments. The best performing Zooks were invited to compete in an as-live televised competition. Imagine a virtual reality Robot Wars!

For the TV show, we used early mixed-reality technology to blend the real (the children in the studio) with the virtual (the Zooks) using giant LED screens and projectors to show kids the action on set. For viewers, it really did appear that the real and the virtual had come together. It was a really successful show.

Bamzooki ran for four series. Towards the end of that time – in 2009/10 – the iPhone was launched. That’s when I saw the commercial potential. A freemium game with its own TV show generating revenue from in-game add-ons sounded like an unbeatable combination.

At that point, I left the BBC and formed Animal Vegetable Mineral with the initial aim of creating game-based TV shows using virtual reality technology on mobile platforms tech. In practice, the business didn’t quite work as well as we expected. At the time, TV executives were nervous about losing revenues to the emerging digital platforms. This meant we couldn’t persuade the TV companies to partner with us as quickly as we needed.

As a result, we pivoted away from augmented reality TV towards immersive experiences utilising our VR/AR know-how and technology. We had an early success with a virtual exhibition for the artist, Ai Weiwei for the Royal Academy of Arts and this led to other projects capturing live experiences for digital delivery.

2. On what project(s) / for whom are you currently working?

Our latest project is called ‘Bear Grylls 360’. We’ve been working with Bear Grylls Adventures, a theme park up in Birmingham, which offers fun physical activities, such as climbing, indoor skydiving, archery and diving etc.. Our job is to capture a flavour of the live experiences and to bring the location to life using virtual and immersive digital technology. The output forms part of Merlin’s digital marketing campaign.

The results so far have been fantastic with a return on ad-spend 45% higher across the campaign than the benchmark so we’re optimistic about the potential for this approach on social channels.

“Our job is to capture a flavour of the live experiences and to bring the location to life using virtual and immersive digital technology.”

The output is similar to our work with Tottenham Hotspur FC on ‘The Lane 360’. This was another of our ‘Live Space’ projects, where we archived (online and in 4D) the atmosphere, events and experiences of the final season at White Hart Lane. This was completed just before the move by the club into its new stadium.

I can see further opportunities for AVM to work on other football-related projects. Aside from a few notable exceptions (AS Roma being one), club content suffers from a conservative mentality. Our approach is to try and use technology bring places to life and to drive revenues, particularly for sponsors and advertisers.

We’re currently working with a number of clients using volumetric video (so recording in 3 dimensions). I think this has huge potential in sport, particularly if content can be captured and turned around quickly in a live stadium environment. Imagine a viewing experience where fans viewpoints weren’t limited by where you could place a camera. Imagine being able to move around the pitch of a live sports event – to watch a penalty from inside the goal or run alongside your favourite player. That’s obviously a hugely exciting development. It’ll open completely new broadcast and commercial opportunities and experiences for fans.

We’ve also been working with a number of football players like Chris Smalling to create social media and other promotional content for social channels

3. What was your route into SportsTech? Was it accidental or deliberate?

Our focus on sport is deliberate. As I explained, AVM’s initial route into sport was through the pioneering Esports work we handled for the BBC and for game developers. Through that, we built a strong reputation for producing good content from a conventional editorial TV perspective then being able to combine that with specialist technology to create exceptional content that is also immersive and interactive.

We’re really interested now in ‘experiences’ – in live, physical, real experiences and that can be captured and enhanced by technology, or in such a way that a user can enjoy a live experience without physically being present.

4. What makes the UK an attractive market for SportsTech sellers / manufacturers, purchasers and investors?

The UK is a hub for many of the world’s most popular sports. We host so many great sporting events and have a genuine passion for sport across the country. We’re also helped that the English language is spoken so widely overseas, which means we’re often a route for many overseas companies into the USA and other bigger international markets.

We also lead the world in content production and innovation. In the USA, it seems to me that advertising has driven the market and sports have adapted, whereas that’s not always been the case here. Generally speaking, in the UK the action came, and continues to come, first.

“In the USA, it seems to me that advertising has driven the market and sports have adapted, whereas that’s not always been the case here.”

5. For start-ups, what’s your view of the current state of the UK SportsTech ecosystem?

To be honest, given that AVM operates across a number of different sectors, I’m not an expert on the SportsTech ecosystem. I do though see some excellent sports content and have seen the emergence of some really good new content platforms, including for example the likes of Copa90 and Arsenal Fan TV. I find it interesting how new non-club and fan-generated content has filled a market gap. It’ll also be interesting to see how clubs react to that and whether we’ll see a move by clubs to work closer with their fan-bases to create and monetize that type of content.

6. What, in your opinion, could/should be done to improve this?

There’s definitely scope for a more symbiotic relationship to exist between clubs, fans, sponsors and broadcasters. However, for various reasons, clubs aren’t necessarily in the best place to produce and tell the stories that many fans want to hear. Clubs really should be looking to encourage and support those who are. Everyone will benefit.

“Clubs aren’t necessarily in the best place to produce and tell the stories that many fans want to hear. Clubs really should be looking to encourage and support those who are. Everyone will benefit.”

7. What key challenges have your start-ups had to/will have to overcome – and how will you overcome them?

At the start of our journey, AVM’s challenge was to create a strong customer base for our products. We started out by creating a product first and thinking about the customer after that. We’ve since changed our approach. Audiences have to come first. We then build a product that is tailored to that demand. We’re also not always focused on the short-term bottom line. For us, what’s more important is creating a loyal customer base.

8. As a start-up founder, what/who is the ideal investor?

It depends. If your business needs cash and to scale quickly, you’ll obviously need an investor with deep pockets and the willingness to spend. If, on the other hand, you need access to a particular market, you might prefer someone with the connections and ability to connect you to that market. That might also determine how engaged you want an investor to be.

We’ve been fortunate at AVM to have had the support of brilliant investors. They understand we’re focused on building a sustainable business and the long-term support of loyal customers, and as such they’re also taking a long-term strategic view.

“We’ve been fortunate at AVM to have had the support of brilliant investors.”

One of our lead investors is based in Korea, which is obviously a more developed market for the technologies we use. He has an in-depth understanding of the market and has genuine enthusiasm for our business and the opportunity. All our investors have taken a pretty hands off approach in terms of the day to day running of the company, but will always provide valuable feedback and insight when we ask for it.

9. Assuming access to funds, in which 3 SportsTech companies (UK or otherwise) would you personally invest?

A number of the businesses I like at the moment aren’t probably what you would classify as pure ‘SportsTech’.

For example, I really like the ‘Re-Match’ concept. They recreate iconic sporting events by immersing spectators back into the moment when the event originally took place, which includes the clothing worn, the popular music of the time, the food and drink and even actors who act out – choreographically – the moves and playing styles of the sports stars who participated in the original event. It’s like a secret cinema for sports. Richard Ayres (founder of Seven League) is an investor.

It’s just great fun and highly imaginative, immersive entertainment, and an actual event (as opposed to a virtual one). They ran an event last summer at Wimbledon reliving one of the classic Borg v McEnroe grass-court finals and it was a big success. It’s interesting looking back at these iconic matches. It’s almost as if the match itself was less important than the mythology that has built up around it, which makes it so fun to recreate now.

“It’s interesting looking back at these iconic matches. It’s almost as if the match itself was less important than the mythology that has built up around it, which makes it so fun to recreate now.”

I’m also interested in Esports, but for me it’s maybe less about the events and teams, but more about the genuine passion and engagement of the fans and gamers. I really like Hutch Games. They’re a publisher that only releases motor racing games. They’ve got real passion for their product and genre and it shows in the games they produce. They’re a brilliant company.

Lastly, I’d invest in Copa90, which has created a really strong, but niche, brand in football editorial and content. A lot of their content is focused on the fan and they haven’t sold out. There’s a real excitement, passion and a sense of fun in what they produce.

10. Your advice to aspiring tech entrepreneurs…

Don’t necessarily be led solely by the tech at the outset. Focus on an idea that you believe in and don’t focus just on what you think will make you money. Your project is more likely to succeed because you love your work and love your product and have genuine belief in it.

Seek validation from your core customers before you take a product to market, and ideally build your product before you invest time and money seeking outside investment.

In the headlong rush to be an entrepreneur, people often forget the price of opportunity cost!

 



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