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Pro sports embracing virtual reality for fans and sponsors

Friday, October 07, 2016  
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Twin Cities Pioneer Press (October 7, 2016) - A credit-union conference room near downtown St. Paul seemed an unlikely locale to witness and experience the latest in sports-related “virtual reality.”

But that is where pro-hockey fanatics, many decked out in Minnesota Wild jerseys, donned futuristic goggles and seized a hockey stick to try their luck as virtual goalies on a simulated Xcel Energy Center rink.

This was possible because the stick had a motion sensor attached to it. When headset users saw a virtual player slap a puck in their direction, they could react with the wooden stick, and see the action replicated through the goggles.

It was, they said, so … lifelike.

Such fan-focused virtual-reality simulations have become commonplace as tech companies have increasingly collaborated with pro-sports teams and their sponsors to create the kind of digital content that mimics the real-life sporting world in all its 360-degree glory.

Some of this content is interactive, allowing users to engage with the virtual realm they are seeing. Some of it is passive, meant only to be watched. But all of it is immersive, meaning users can turn their heads in all directions while wearing the goggles in order to view a world that entirely surrounds them.

All of this content has a business rationale. Pro-sports teams and their various sponsors want to better engage fans so they’ll spend more money. Bobbleheads and other tchotchkes — and even ticket sales — no longer cut it.


The Twin Cities in recent months has seen an onslaught of sports-flavored virtual reality activity.

The Minnesota Twins last July handed out low-cost VR goggles by the thousands at Target Field so fans could see a 360-degree video of a Twins player going about his day. When watching the video on their smartphones with these goggles attached, visitors could crane their heads in all directions, as if they were actually there.

The Minnesota Vikings have trotted out their own VR experience as part of “Vikings Voyage,” a U.S. Bank Stadium museum of sorts with an assortment of high-tech exhibits. These include a station equipped with two sets of VR goggles attached to football helmets. Visitors don the rigs to play a brief, interactive game that has them catching a pass.

The Vikings Voyage fan experience at U.S. Bank Stadium includes a virtual-reality game that lets attendees pretend they’re catching a football. VR goggles are attached to football helmets. (Pioneer Press: Julio Ojeda-Zapata)

Meanwhile, the National Baseball Hall of Fame rolled into town over the summer with “We Are Baseball,” a high-tech baseball tribute that also included a virtual-reality option. Upon donning goggles, visitors could embark on a 360-degree video tour of about a half-dozen major-league baseball stadiums.

Even the recent Ryder Cup, with help from technology giant Samsung, had VR action. Visitors to Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska were ushered into a tent bristling with Samsung tech — including the Gear VR goggles. In one area, golf fans watched VR videos. In another, they could play VR golf.


The pro-hockey simulation at the headquarters of Hiway Federal Credit Union in St. Paul was yet another example of how the VR, business and sports worlds are increasingly intersecting.

Hiway is one of the Minnesota Wild’s sponsors and has the option of setting up a table at Wild home games to drum up banking business.

An employee at Hiway Federal Credit Union in St. Paul tries out a virtual-reality game that lets her pretends to be a Minnesota Wild goalie. (Pioneer Press: Julio Ojeda-Zapata)

But last year’s effort disappointed, said Hiway President Dave Boden.

“It was a little challenging,” he said. “We had giveaways … but we were fighting all the other organizations in the arena.”

He said Hiway needed to find “something unique and high-tech to attract attention.”

Enter Patrick Klinger of the Brand Enhancement Group, a St. Paul company that works with sporting teams in a marketing capacity.

Klinger cast about for a way to better draw potential customers in and keep them engaged for at least a minute or two. Free T-shirts don’t cut it anymore, he noted.

VR was just the ticket, he decided. So he reached out to Visual, a Minneapolis-based creator of virtual-reality material. Soon, Visual had created a VR video game mostly from scratch.

The game harnesses HTC’s Vive, a newer variety of virtual reality system that includes a video-game-style controller along with the standard goggles. Visual’s game designers attached the controller to the physical hockey stick, essentially transforming it into a VR hockey stick.

Presto! Let’s play VR hockey. Wild fans will get to do this at 10 upcoming games when Visual sets up the equipment at Xcel Energy Center.


Virtual reality is “the new hotness” for pro-sports teams and their sponsors, noted Visual co-founder Chuck Olsen, who has been in touch with a handful of Minnesota teams.

His company has worked with the NBA’s Timberwolves to video-record a game in 360 degrees as an experiment — but that content hasn’t been released to the public.

Visual also recently worked with the WNBA’s Lynx and one of its sponsors, Explore Minnesota, to create a VR-video compilation of Minnesota scenery mixed in with basketball action.

Olsen’s company set up outside four Lynx games so fans could check out the VR content on Gear VR goggles. This, said Olsen brought “endless smiles.”

But the Vive gear Wild fans were using is vastly superior to the Gear VR equipment because it allows for interactivity and not just passive viewing, Olsen said. The Vive gear includes a set of sensors on tripods that interact with the goggles and controller for accurate position tracking.


Other VR-content creators have been scrambled to create similar 360-degree material for their sports-related clients.

For the Vikings, Philadelphia-based MVP Interactive assembled the virtual-reality game with the goggles attached to the helmets at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The goggles, in this case, are Rift models from a Facebook-owned company called Oculus, which has been pushing the boundaries of VR.

MVP Interactive paired the goggles with Microsoft Kinect motion sensors to add interactivity — in this case, to have fans raise their arms as they see a virtual football spinning their way, and get the sense that they caught it.

A visitor to the Vikings Voyage fan experience at U.S. Bank Stadium pretends to catch a football while wearing virtual-reality goggles attached to a helmet. (Pioneer Press: Julio Ojeda-Zapata)

The computer-rendered U.S. Bank Stadium version that is viewable through the goggles will likely be familiar to console gamers — it’s the same stadium view that appears in the popular Madden NFL 17 game.

The gameplay itself, as with Visual’s Wild-hockey game, is  crude, and VR-content creators generally agree we’re in the early days for this sort of thing. In other words, sports-VR fans, stay tuned for more (and better) to come.

Still, the Vikings are hoping its VR attraction — along with the other tech-y components of the Vikings Voyage museum — will enrapture visitors.

“The intention is to give fans the power to engage physically and emotionally with the team,” said Tanya Dreesen, Vikings vice president of partnership activation and special projects. “We hope (they) agree it is a great example of how we can merge physical and digital while getting actively involved with our fanbase.”


Silicon Valley-based Jaunt has focused on VR video instead of VR gaming. It has been at the bleeding edge of VR video with footage of increasing quality as its custom-built recording gear has steadily improved, putting off-the-shelf VR gear to shame.

Jaunt was responsible for the virtual-reality portion of the “We Are Baseball” traveling exhibit, which recently stopped at the Mall of America in Bloomington.

Visitors donned Gear VR goggles to gawk in every direction as they visited one major-league stadium after another, and even got up close with pro players.

This personal connection with athletes is what makes sports-type VR video really shine, said Miles Perkins, Jaunt’s vice president of marketing communications.

Similarly, Major League Baseball has provided 360-degree video clips, including the VR video promoted by the Twins in July, within its MLB Ballpark mobile app for viewing with phones and attached VR goggles.

Samsung took both approaches — VR video and VR gaming — at its recent Ryder Cup tech exhibit.

Visitors donned the Gear VR goggles to watch  sports-related VR videos while leaning back in spherical chairs, which they could spin around with their feet to watch the 360-degree footage in all directions.

A Ryder Cup attendee tries out a Samsung virtual-reality golfing exhibit at Hazeltine National Golf Club on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016. (Courtesy photo: Samsung)

Across the room, a VR-gaming area let visitors swing a physical club equipped with a motion sensor as they watched the action replicated through Gear VR headgear. This attraction was called “Hole 360.”

Samsung has aggressively promoted virtual reality via its Gear VR hardware, which has been steadily upgraded, along with its Gear 360 camera for creating 360-degree videos.

Google also is pushing consumer-grade virtual reality in a big way. Its lower-cost Cardboard goggles — literally made of cardboard in many cases — have been available for some time. It recently revealed Daydream View VR goggles meant to be paired with a new generation of Android phones.

Such hardware will spur creation of more virtual-reality content, and much of that looks to be sports-focused.

“The big argument for VR in sports is that it could be potentially better than a front-row seat,” Visual’s Olsen said. “You can be in the middle of the action. That has never been possible before.”

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