Sport is about more than simply participating or watching it from the sofa. It is one of the most immersive and emotionally driven experiences that somebody can have. Think about how your heart pounds when you are watching your soccer team trying to score the winning goal or trying to hold out a small points margin in an important match.
At home you create the atmosphere, in a bar you might have 100 others helping, but it is nothing compared to the thousands that pack into a stadium and are watching the action live.
Similarly with athletes, if you are stepping up to take a match winning pass or to make a vital interception, if you are doing it against your friends you get partial experience, the nerves increase if you are doing it in front of a hundred spectators at a small match, but none can compare to being the QB at the Super Bowl in the last minutes of a tight match.
The idea that nothing can compare to these has been well established, but we may be closer than ever to being able to experience these from the comfort of our own homes.
This is thanks to virtual reality, something that several companies have been using to try and recreate the experience of either having the best seat in the house at a stadium or being in the heart of the action on the field.
Most of these technologies are currently being built through the use of the Occulus Rift, a virtual reality headset that allows the user to be completely immersed in the experience. It has the ability to give a 360 degree field of vision, meaning that you can turn around and see what is behind you, to your left, right or straight ahead. It essentially gives you the same perspective as if you were within the experience itself.
So if you are in a crowd, you can look behind you to see the people sat behind you or scan around the pitch to see whatever is happening at that point. The atmosphere is also created through the headphones, which isolate external noise, making it an even more immersive experience.
The benefits of this for sports fans are clear, you can get the amazing stadium experience from wherever you are in the world. It may not be exactly the same (after all you are going to be aware that you’re wearing a fairly large headset) but it is the closest that can be done without actually buying a ticket. It opens up a new frontier of potential broadcasting techniques and Pay Per View options, but it also means that sports fans who may not be able to ever get to a game can experience what it would be like.
However, athletes arguably have the most to gain from the use of virtual reality as it allows them to experience real game and atmosphere situations.
Companies have noticed how this could be a potential game changer in terms of changing the ways in which athletes can train.
Derek Belch has been using this kind of immersive training technology with the Stanford College Football team, a team he was once kicker for. Through using the Occulus Rift and videos of plays shot from the perspective of the players, it is possible to know the calls, plays and lines better than if you were to play them in a non-competitive training session or just seeing them through a traditional video.
The perspective allows players to see the speed at which they need to react, what they will literally be seeing around them and the pressures that come from playing in a high stakes environment.
Similarly, EON Sports have taken this same idea and introduced it at a high school level, attempting to teach young quarterbacks how they should be reading the game and preparing themselves mentally. It is this kind of experience that will allow people to become better, because physical attributes are relatively easy to create, but mental preparation and experience is what turns this physical readiness into game readiness.
If you think about the stature of Lionel Messi as a prime example. He is 5ft 6.5in, 67kg and fairly slight, which does not fit with the ideal of a footballer, but his experience and mental aptitude are what sets him apart as the best player in the world. The fact that he can think quicker than those around him and then having the skill to take advantage of the split second difference is what makes him the player he is.
If he did not have the experience behind him, it would be impossible to do this.
Virtual reality training is what will give young players the chance to experience real game scenarios and become attuned to them. It has the potential to train their minds in the same way that traditional on-field training sessions tune their bodies.
Whether this will hit the big time is another matter, with one of the big drawbacks being that the current model of the Occulus Rift can become uncomfortable after about 8 minutes of use. When virtual reality becomes a more viable consumer product, the chances are that we will see better hardware to accompany the software, making this a more viable option moving forwards.