This time four years ago, I was one of the 22m people in sprawling Sao Paulo.
The streets were, as always, filled with traffic. But they were also alive with expectation. Brazil – the seleção – were in town for the opening game of the 2014 World Cup.
Thousands of people lined the route to Arena Corinthians in the hours before the opening match of the tournament against Croatia, stringing flags across their streets and wrapping yellow, green and blue around the lamp posts. Kids doing keepie-uppies with limes for spare change at traffic lights. One youngster graffitied a wall – the slogan read ‘Com raça Brazil’ – Run with Brazil.
And I was there with the BBC to bear witness to that day, to tell that incredible story and to record the drama that would unfold over subsequent the five weeks – bites and all.
At the same time, 10,427km north of Sao Paulo, a deal was being finalised that would shape my future. Perhaps, at least to some degree, everyone else’s. In a board room in Menlo Park, California, Mark Zuckerberg was signing off on a contract that would see Facebook acquire start-up called Oculus. The value of the deal? Around $3bn – made up of around $400 million cash and 23.1 million shares of Facebook stock.
At the World Cup, Sony had sent a team of engineers and cameramen to gather footage in 8k. That was the near future. Virtual and Augmented Reality simply weren’t part of the conversation.
Four years on and much has changed.
Why? These days, my storytelling is on a different platform. I am the CEO of an award-winning immersive tech consultancy – working with the biggest names in sport, entertainment, health and travel. And in Russia, VR is a living, breathing part of the World Cup coverage across the world. Science fiction has become science fact. BBC Sport are broadcasting all of their 33 matches in VR, replicating what it will be like to watch from inside your own hospitality box at various stadiums in Russia, with commentary from Match of the Day and live stats. Fox Sports and Telemundo will also be streaming all 64 World Cup matches live in VR.
None of the immersive experiences on offer during the World Cup will persuade fans to leave their 4K TVs for more than a few minutes. None of them, sadly, are yet able to do any more than allow the viewer to watch a World Cup match through a pretend window of a pretend hospitality box.
The experience does not offer a better view of the match than TV yet, none replicate the feeling of the being at the match, in the stadium. And yet, to use a football analogy, we’re only in the first five minutes of the match. The technology has come from nowhere in four years to deliver a solution, but it’s not yet THE solution that the future promises. And there should not be a rush to put a solution that relies more on style than substance, in front of an expectant and, understandably sceptical, public.
The Coca-Cola sponsored ‘FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour’ visited more than 50 countries ahead of the tournament in Russia. Their VR experience will give fans ‘virtual access to the FIFA plane’ among other things. Access to the FIFA plane, every fan’s World Cup dream come true, I’m sure. The creative thinking and the content ideas must improve if fans are to engage with a tech that has huge potential but is not yet a must-watch in sport.
But what does the future hold, where will things to go in the next four years?
Forecasts and projections tell us the immersive tech industry will grow by 550%. As will the technology. Intel are already developing a ‘volumetric’ VR solution that allows you to choose a player on the field and watch the game from their point of view. The idea of seeing the game through the eyes of your hero may not be a dream at Qatar’s winter World Cup of 2022.
And let’s not forget Augmented Reality here. With Apple already working on a device that could hit the mainstream as early as October this year, AR may yet be the bigger opportunity for the live sporting landscape, with real time stats – heartrate, distance run, passes complete – when you look at each player on the field.
Russia will not be the World Cup when immersive tech announces itself to the planet and delivers the most compelling live experience imaginable. It will however, be the testing ground, the science lab, to see not only how far the technology has come since Sao Paulo 2014, but how far it still has to go.