VR university: Big Ten Network to live-stream its first game in virtual reality

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The Big Ten Network is poised to kick off a new chapter in the virtual reality history book on Saturday. In partnership with VR production company Voke, BTN will live-stream the Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers game in virtual reality, becoming the first college sports network to produce a live football game in VR. The game is the culmination of roughly 18 months of talks and tests between the two companies, and will serve as a master class in how the network can bring a football game into the realm of virtual reality.

Voke’s TrueVR platform, which it uses to handle VR streams, will use four 180-degree HD cameras situated around Nebraska’s Tom Osborne Field at Memorial Stadium. Fans will be given an immersive view from both end zones and both sides of the 50-yard line, with the ability to toggle between each camera angle by simply tapping a camera icon that appears during the stream. This gives more control than previous live sports VR experiences, such as NextVR’s efforts with the NBA.

Voke and BTN are centrally focused on merging the front row experience VR provides with the convenient, contextual information that is standard for a sports broadcast. Those watching the VR stream will be able to see what down either team is currently on, yardage, game time, and score, which will be augmented onto their field of view, Jeff Jonas, chief commercial officer for Voke, told Digital Trends. There will also be game highlights released in the BTN channel of the Voke app during the game in near-real time, a first for a live sports VR experience. Voke will provide a blend of live audio from inside the stadium and the broadcast commentary from TV.

“We’re dipping our toe in the water to try to learn what a football game production takes to pull off in VR,” Michael Calderon, BTN vice president of programming and digital media, told Digital Trends. BTN has been in talks with Voke to work on VR experiences for roughly a year and a half, and even tested live sports in VR with a basketball game last season that was kept from the public, according to Calderon.

Voke has been one of the leaders in the nascent industry of live sports in virtual reality, working with Turner Sports to handle the first-ever live-streaming of the men’s college basketball Final Four tournament in March. Being able to check your social media feeds and fix your fantasy football team in VR are a few features Voke is currently testing, according to Jonas. But the company will be selective on which features it pushes into people’s faces, for their own good. “To be honest, the VR experience for most people is kind of overwhelming. We have to make sure we aren’t giving them too much stuff. We kind of have to feed the baby, slowly,” Jonas said with a chuckle.

Calderon said BTN will figure out how to one day make money from virtual reality, but the number of people who watch the game in VR will not be how the network gauges the success of this weekend’s game. Instead, BTN will focus on technical metrics: how the production looked, as well as how cumbersome was it to set up in the stadium and get the requisite connectivity to stream uninterrupted. “I don’t think there’s anything you can see that would say’this was a smashing success or a failure,” Calderon said “We’re going to learn from everything we do this weekend, and try to build off what we learned.”

Both companies are planning on expanding each of their VR offerings in the upcoming year. Calderon already thinks “potentially you may see one or two more tests from us at some point later this academic year.” Voke was recently acquired by Intel to usher the computing company into the live sports in VR arena. Jonas says since Voke is platform agnostic, releasing VR content for the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR in the past year, and has been in talks with Google about making content for the new Google Daydream VR headset.

Fans will be able to watch the Minnesota vs. Nebraska game in VR by downloading Voke’s GearVR app from the Oculus Store, and then using a Gear VR headset and compatible Samsung mobile phone. The game begins at 7:30 p.m. ET and will be available on-demand in the Voke app following the game.

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