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Want to get up close and personal with a warmup to March Madness? You can sit center court, thanks to Fox Sports' VR (virtual reality) live stream of the Big East quarterfinal, semifinal and championship basketball games this weekend.
"Our job as a broadcaster is to create the most engaging entertainment experiences for the sports fan," said Fox Sports head of business operations David Nathanson. "Anytime we have an opportunity to bring our fans closer to the teams they care about and the sports they care about, the better for us. This represents an opportunity for us not only to do this for our viewers, but opportunities for our sponsors."
The stream, which takes place from March 10 through 12, marks the first time the broadcaster will be attempting a multi-day stream for a global audience. Viewers can watch the content for free on the NextVR platform. All they need is a Samsung Gear VR, which uses a Samsung smartphone.
Fox previously tried VR broadcasting live events in 2015 during a NASCAR race and an open golf session during Chambers Bay, but both streams were for private audiences. This year, the company branched out to national VR streams of the PBC boxing title fight and the Daytona 500, which was sponsored by Toyota.
In October, the NBA was the first professional league to stream a live game in VR. NextVR also produced that experience.
Still, the fact remains that VR headsets are not widely owned. While research firm Tractica predicted that more than 200 million headsets will be sold by 2020 and the industry will be worth $22 billion worldwide, it was only valued at $110 million in 2014. There are no hard numbers on how many people own the headsets now.
Nathanson doesn't want to predict how many people will watch the Big East VR stream, but the network is expecting the numbers to be higher than previous events because it is being streamed worldwide. But, even if the numbers are low, he said Fox is viewing it as a "learning experience."
"We're in the early days of VR technology. … There absolutely will be challenges, but that's absolutely why we're doing this and why were showcasing such variety," he said.
NextVR's co-founder DJ Roller sees opportunities like streaming the Big East games as a way to encourage more people to buy the VR headsets. The company has experimented with other live events including a Coldplay concert and one of the Democratic presidential debates.
"Providing compelling content will encourage more people to purchase VR headsets, whether that's sports, concerts or films," he said via email. "The number of consumers with headsets is clearly in its infancy yet we believe the next two years will see incredible growth in the adoption of virtual reality as a new medium. Phone makers and carriers will offer headsets as an incentive to buy new flagship mobile phones — as Samsung is doing now with the Galaxy S7 — with chipsets specifically designed for viewing virtual reality content. And as more gaming systems add access to virtual reality content, we will see adoption take off."
Fox's Nathanson admitted that the TV broadcast still was superior in certain ways — for example, it can handle more graphics, multiple camera angles, and show rewound and slowed-down plays. However, he was hopeful that VR can provide an intimate experience that television can't.
"You're not only closer to the game, but really giving them (the viewers) the perspective of having the best seats of the house," he said.