In the early 1980s, adventure games such as The Hobbit were the beginning of interactive entertainment on basic 8-bit computers, notes Roman Magis, Principal Director: Video, Advertising and Content for Accenture Africa, where the player could choose the narrative of the game by selecting their preferred options for completing the adventure course at each stage.
These were text-based with very simple graphics, which later evolved to more sophisticated games that ran on PCs. Nowadays, you can program similar experiences for entire movies and movie scenes based on your input and decisions, thus writing your own story line.
We have entered into an era of new digital consumption formats like 3D viewership. Now imagine the addition of virtual reality or 3D to this interactive entertainment. We have already seen from the start that 3D movies are difficult to produce as you have a camera setup with a 360-degree coverage consisting of usually multiple cameras which are stitched together to provide a 360-degree stream.
Scenes need to be produced in totality from every angle so that the spectator, who is now within the movie can also look around and decide which scene and action to focus on. Experiments are now being done to expand the use of virtual reality beyond 3D movies and gaming and to include the option to interact in the same programme with a group of people.
Bringing 3D viewing to live sporting events
The FIFA World Cup is considered the most valuable event in the world. Surpassing all large events – movie premieres, global concerts, the Olympic Games – the FIFA World Cup boasts the largest budget and has the largest penetration in the world of all events.
However, the current experience at football games and other sporting events, in general, is different now because COVID-19 regulations dictate that fans are not allowed in stadiums. Virtual reality may well be the solution to bring the nostalgic experience back and provide a virtual engagement.
The closest we have come to see this happen is in 2019 when Intel’s True View technology used in TV coverage of Sunday’s Super Bowl to bring fans courtside in NBA, allowing them to experience 360-degree replays of all the key moments. The cutting-edge technology allowed viewers to experience winning goals, flying saves, and last-ditch tackles from the perspective of the players on the pitch.
Similarly, the French Football League (LFP) also introduced this technology at its stadia providing for 360-degree replays, with fans being able to freeze the match at any moment to see the view of the pitch from the viewpoint of a player.
Using 38 5K cameras they managed to capture vast quantities of volumetric data. The only downside is this technology was limited to replays and not for live games.
At Accenture, we recently designed a solution that gives you the ability to participate virtually in the game by pressing buttons that enable sound playback of a crowd in the stadium. There are however certain issues around broadcast delays.
At present, live videos across platforms present an electronic lag from device to device. Once a solution is found to synchronise live video, the use of virtual reality and group interactive viewing will be much more enjoyable.
The technology is already out there allowing for a synchronised Content Delivery Network (CDN) which has a determined delay and synchronisation across all the devices that are watching the same screen, getting the content at the same time.
This prevents lagging between devices allowing the audience to enjoy a synchronised experience during a live event – which is particularly important for sports. One of the next developments we will see worldwide is the drive to bring the synchronised broadcast experience back to enable fan participation.
If we take it a step further, the use of virtual reality could allow the insertion of moving and animated graphics into a normal broadcast stream. Combined with the audio synchronisation, one could create a virtual crowd in the stadium with waving flags, blowing vuvuzelas, and much more.
Implementation challenges in South Africa’s context
There is less of an issue from the production perspective in comparison to the consumption. The technology to support 3D already exists to allow for virtual reality sporting events to be produced. The real problem lies with end-user devices and available network bandwidth. People will need to invest in specific gear to be able to participate in the game via that consumption method and these are still quite expensive.
The signal distribution has to be very consistent. Not only providing speed but also high quality of service – a 360 or 180-degree video uses a lot of streaming data because of the added number of angles one would watch the game from.
Making the signal available everywhere and enabling the end-user devices to interpret those signals fluently may prove to be a challenge. Network connectivity must be fast enough, and your cell phone or tablet must have the necessary calculating power to give you a smooth experience when you turn your head or when you change your viewing angle during a game.
Unfortunately, South Africa’s telcos are not among the fastest in mobile data speed. According to the latest benchmark report from Opensignal, Canada has matched South Korea for the fastest average download speeds on mobile networks. They each averaged 59 Mbps in early 2020. South Africa sits at a low 15Mbps and having such a slow average speed would negatively affect the user experience.
The other foreseen challenge is from the CDN perspective, where high data costs to broadcast the signal into all areas need to be considered, as well as satellite distribution – where an internet provider is used – would still require more bandwidth for streaming. The costs of mobile data are already considered higher than average in South Africa, and so are internet costs, therefore 3D streaming may not be a viable option for the majority of the population.
We are only scratching the surface
Despite the stumbling blocks on the consumption end of the spectrum, there is hope. Distributors such as Netflix are already using similar technology. Their latest offering; Netflix Party a new way to watch TV with your friends online by synchronising video playback and a group chat with your favourite shows.
Simply put, somebody starts to stream on Netflix and other people can join the stream creating a virtual room where a group can watch the same show and interact as though they were in the same living room.
The possibilities for using similar solutions for sporting events are there and we’re only just scratching the surface of what’s possible. Taking our local context into account, a careful consideration of the entire production chain and distribution methods will be required to achieve a fully integrated, convergent, and seamless consumer experience.