Couple of years ago, we witnessed a trend of “cutting the cord”, i.e. canceling the cable subscription in the United States. Still to this date, cable subscription is the primary way how majority of households receives its TV channels. Their offering got expanded with the advance of expensive PPV (pay-per-view) programs, such as UFC / MMA fight nights and the shift of Formula 1 World Championship from FTA (free-to-air) to the PPV model.
The arrival of Virtual Reality headsets is bringing another possibility – unlike TV, which puts you in a passive position – VR can make you ‘a part of the match’, or a ‘part of the race’. By developing a 3D engine which supports most popular sports such as soccer i.e. football, Formula E, Virtually Live wants to move you from your seat into the heart of action.
In order to learn what Virtually Live is all about, we sat down with Tom Impallomeni, CEO of Virtually Live, Inc. Tom is a serial entrepreneur who started his career as a manager in PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), before building several businesses in United Kingdom. Last year, he got the call to move to San Francisco and take over the reign over the company, and build relationships with different franchise owners. In less than a year, Virtually Live got support from Manchester City, FIA Formula E Championship and numerous others.
VRW: How did it all started? Where the idea of virtual reality in sports came from?
TH: As a company, we started two years ago, and most of people thought the idea of Virtual Reality was crazy. That I was crazy. We started development using Oculus Development Kits (DK1), and our breakthrough came when we started to show our code on DK2’s with different business leads. Time went on and I joined the team in full capacity.
In our team, we now love the (HTC) Vive and we’re certain Oculus will catch up. Having said that, theBlu: Whale experience, Google’s Tilt Brush are incredibly great experiences and you can’t explain it until you try them.
Can you tell us more about the Virtual Live as a product?
In a nutshell, we are a platform or a medium to experience live venues or live experiences that enable people who would not be able to go to a race or a sports game. What we aren’t is a 360 spherical camera company.
We’re not a hybrid VR platform, where you have a room with the screen and interact with it. We are building a true VR experience around the live sports. Rather to being limited to fixed position, we put you in the experience -be that a stadium, race track – and all through multiple cameras. Our technology is all about achieving virtual presence in real world events as they take place.
Put the user in the heart of the action. VR will enable you not to have the best seat in the house, but to take one step further and become a part of the action.
Giving people something they can’t buy, no matter what your background is – that is what we are. There are 18 drivers on the Formula E grid. Our technology enables you to become not one, but all of the drivers.
VRW: How do you Recreating Sports Arenas – Virtual Venues
TH: What we do on the data side is a fairly complex manner but still simple enough to enter the broadcast pipeline where latency is the key.
Our volumetric technology enables us to embed, encapsulate the whole venue – we take 3D data, RFID data, telemetry data (where available) and expand our predictive algorithms to learn from the data and existing feeds what players to do in real time and that gets pushed to the front-end visualization engine.
Once we build digital properties, we can easily track them for the length of the event.
VRW: What sports are your focus? We’ve seen the Formula E, are there more experiences planned?
TH: We focused initially on footie, i.e. soccer here in the U.S., motor racing, basketball and golf. We have a twofold strategy to broaden out our offering within each sport. More content, more experiences to the fans.
We want to cover 10 years of sports championships by the end of the year. We are working behind the scenes with specific US-focused sports, things like tennis, and contact sports such as mixed martial arts and their respective championships. I am big sports fan and to offer an experience as close to reality as possible is my ultimate goal.
VRW: What engine are you using to create the experiences?
TH: Front end engine; we worked with both Unity and Unreal Engine on different experiences. For now, the experiences will continue to use either Unreal Engine or Unity… we’re both engine and platform agnostic, putting the experience on all the VR platforms as well. It doesn’t matter if you have HTC Vive or an Oculus Rift. Your experience will be smooth in our service.
VRW: Where are you planning to go… is photorealism the ultimate goal? Or is it still an ‘uncanny valley’?
TH: In our core, we’re a data company. Big data. We’re hoping we will end up with a deep understanding of the sports we cover, but the viewing experience is not the only goal here. There are extra applications, such as partnerships with customers that want to predict logic, improve the sports themselves through coaching. We spoke to a number of game development companies, and back at GDC 2016 – we showed our product and based on feedback, we’re now talking to interesting parties.
We need to build a team that is partly a gaming studio – we won’t build the games ourselves, but we have to make our data understandable to the game dev teams to make future sports games better and more realistic than ever.
The sheer amount of data we process per event is just astonishing.
VRW: What is the delay involved between the real time action and reproduction in VR?
TH: The latency is the easiest one to answer – motorsport includes 180 sensors / real time telemetry, and we can render faster than the TV broadcast, so you’re talking just a few seconds.
Getting that data and converting into a virtual reality takes time. For stereoscopic camera data traffic – we need 2-3 seconds to process the data, just like the TV broadcast (3sec). Then we need to do a cleanup, which adds additional latency, but we consider ourselves comparable to HDTV, which takes several seconds to process. Our goal is to always be under six seconds (delay), and in some cases faster than broadcast. Given that this is only our first true year of operation, our learning curve is quite exponential.
VRW: Key markets will sooner or later infiltrate VR into the sports television experience – how are you working with commentators / analysts?
TH: First and foremost, I have to say I am delighted to work with FIA Formula E crew. We have complete access to everything that we wanted, and they even got back to us with some parts we did not dare asking. To immerse yourself into the virtual coverage of a sport – you need to have great commentators. We’re still very young, but it is encouraging to see how people are open towards us.
We’re getting there.
VRW: What is the monetization model of Virtually Live?
TH: It’s all about the fan. We want to offer a ton of interesting content and enable choice across all these different sports.
We’re not going to build it all ourselves. We are building a platform that enables our partners to create and monetize their own experiences. We’re looking to team up with interested parties who can build for the long tail of sports, so we do have that on offer. We partner a lot with individual sports and broadcasters, and the truth is that the sports right market and sports rights industries is complex and varies by the sport.
If you take Premier League for example, VR is an important part of the feature, but currently they sell their rights for billions of dollars. Still, we’re having talks how VR is complimentary to broadcast and can provide ancillary revenue to the leagues.
Our monetization level is two-fold: we have some sort of subscription, and per event basis. As experience with different sports proved, people will pay to watch live sports. The question is how much is compatible with the current level of sports. In 12-18 months from now, we may not be charging access to those events – but will be making money through advertising on virtual billboards. Advertising is a key part of the sports – billboards, car liveries, football jerseys and more.
If you put fans on the stadium, you can replace all the real advertising with virtual advertisements, and the ads just might be the key to the sports. As the market takes off, things become more mature, people will start to pay more for their experiences, but for now we’re looking at low priced and sponsored opportunities.
VRW: How many people are in the team, venture backed or not?
TH: While we started quite small, we’ve reached the 50 people mark and by our current rate of hiring, we expect to hit 100 by the end of the year. Our focus is to bring the talent to scale the platform and broaden the reach, expand the business.
Virtually Live received quite a lot of backing from several large European funds, and we have plenty in the pocket for the expansion. As we scale up, I believe we will need more funding. There is a definite window where we want to ‘win the market’. We’re at the moment operating inside an environment that has early users, or hardly any users. It will take 12-24 months to make significant revenue available. We’re building the technology right now to support all the users we expect to have in the future.
For example, I would take our collaboration with FIA Formula E championship. The organization behind Alejandro Agag is hugely progressive. They went from race cars, to a self-driving car championship – changing the face of motorsports, and Formula E will come to rise above Formula 1 on terms of profile.
We’re happy to use our technology to deliver experiences which were not considered possible in other, more conventional forms of motorsport. We now have real world race car drivers driving against real world people which may be located at the venue, or at the other corner of the world. eSports is changing perception of sports, and should we see the convergence between games and real world sports, you can bet Virtually Live will be there.
What Virtually Live is working on is quite revolutionary for the often stale world of sports coverage. The potential for their technology is incredible, and while the current level of graphics is too simplistic to achieve complete immersion – that level of graphics is perfect for people that want to use their tool in professional purposes.
We would not be surprised if we see Virtual Live appearing with the Formula One World Championship as well, given that the ringmasters behind that sport are currently testing 360 degree cameras and have started to talk about the future.
Virtually Live has a really tall mountain to climb, but virtual presence just might be the way to go and access the covered sports in a way very few approaches could work. Back in 1990s, German’s Premiere channel offered F1 with multiple cameras, multiple cameras at the same time, with or without commentators, you could spend the whole race tracking one car and driver – pretty much just like in a computer game. Virtually Live is now on stage and while it does offer low level of graphics, that is something easily solvable as the team builds its digital assets library.
Follow your sport in virtual reality with a six second delay. With sponsorship deals, it even might be free. Not a bad deal, right?