UCFB Etihad Campus student Carolin Boldt recently attended the Digital Sports Manchester event at Media City, where she learnt about the evolving augmented and virtual technologies being introduced to sports fans around the world. Here, Carolin, who studies BA (Hons) Multimedia Sports Journalism, tells us more…

Dan McLaren, founder of Digital Sport UK, is working in the field of technological development in the sporting world. So far, top of the agenda of digital sport is using the new technologies for fan engagement purposes, but there could be much more in the future.

McLaren’s event, held at the Salford University’s MediaCity Campus, discussed the topic of how far technologies like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are already used in the sports industry and where it still could go.

The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang made an important step forward into the world of VR and AR fan-engagement. Live from South Korea, Prof. Andy Miah explained how the new technologies are used at the Olympic Games and how they changed the fan-experience, but also the broadcasting coverage of the games.

As it is Samsung’s home territory, it was a huge chance to introduce AR and VR into the sporting world in the widest way possible.

Already in 1998, the first VR-bobsleigh simulator was used for training purposes by US athletes. This method has since been used by most of the teams for training their athletes in the majority of disciplines. With the help of VR-simulators it is possible to recreate the Olympic tracks under different conditions. For the athletes this is a huge advantage as the time for training on the actual track is limited and not sufficient to develop winning chances.

In Pyeongchang, these simulators were not only used for the athletes. In a VR-exhibition centre, the fans themselves could try out these simulators and get near-real experiences of how the athletes feel while going down the slopes or ice rinks. Through these experiences the fans can connect better with their favourite athletes.

As much as it enhanced the fan-experience, the newly introduced technologies also changed the way of broadcasting. The chance to make media more creative and immersive encouraged US-broadcasters to deliver around 50 hours of VR-material for their viewers at home.

VR and AR animations make the coverage of the Games more real, as the fans feel like they are really on site and not hundreds of miles away in front of a TV-screen. With the positive results of the VR broadcasting-experiment, it is very likely that more broadcasters will join in and probably introduce VR-coverage on a regular basis across different sports.

But it is still early days in the professional use of these technologies and the process and equipment is still very expensive. The industry always goes on the financial aspect, so as long as the technologies are not easy to use and don’t deliver a high quality it is unlikely that it will be introduced before these problems are solved, according to McLaren.

In the panel, session Prof. Graham Thomas, section leader of BBC immersive and interactive content, and BBC research and development, said that the concerns about the high costs of the VR and AR technologies are a big problem at the moment. But he also thinks that the new technologies can be a chance to engage a younger audience because it makes the experience more interactive and can be accessed through mobile devices at all times and places.

Colm O Mealoid, COO of US company Sportego, sees huge potential for VR and AR games and experiences for fan-apps. This would give the clubs and organisations an innovative approach to fan interaction on a social and physical basis.

With the help of these interactive technologies, the actual fanbase of a club could attract a wider group of people, not only in the club’s own country but also abroad. Matthew Quinn, Head of Media-Technology & Delivery at Liverpool FC, sees huge advantages for marketing and popularity. But he also argues that the technologies still have problems with resolution, audio and user-friendliness.

After all, sports coverage is a social experience. If people have to put on VR-headsets it takes the chance from them to interact during the match with friends and social media. AR systems like the Hololens could be the answer for that, said Mealoid. It can be used while interacting with friends, but also gives the user all the information and interactive elements, such as match stats and replays, at the same time. Also, the equipment to provide an AR-experience is easier to set up and maintain, so makes it easier to realise this technology.

The sporting world has only scratched the surface of using interactive technologies so far, Mealoid concluded. It is a whole new market to cover, but there definitely is one. VR and AR are extremely popular because the ideas and the experiences are impressive. Also, the younger generations are growing up using technology in their daily life and expect it to be in every aspect of life. VR is already successfully used for training purposes and to provide short fun-experiences to fans. But everyone on the panel agreed that it is still to discover how the technologies can be effectively used in the media-world.