At its annual developers conference next month, Apple is expected to unveil its first mixed reality headset. A combination of rumors and reporting has led enthusiasts to anticipate a device resembling high-tech ski goggles that can present virtual reality experiences as well as a pass-through mode showing the real world around the user.
If Apple’s presentation matches the forecasts, it will provide a fairly neat chapter break in the modern history of virtual reality, coming just over 10 years after Google began selling prototypes of Google Glass. A year after that launch, Facebook, now Meta, bought Oculus VR for $2 billion.
To date, the biggest takeaway from VR history is that each of Silicon Valley’s big ideas will not be as immediately disruptive as the internet or the smartphone were. But the technology hasn’t disappeared, even if the hype has died down. Far from it. In fact, looking at how virtual reality has evolved in sports can offer a useful lesson or two regarding how the next technology trying to make the jump from sci-fi to primetime—artificial intelligence—could impact the athletic landscape.
On Monday afternoon, I talked to IRL Studios cofounder Paul Katsen about the state of virtual reality while we shot around inside the United Center. Except rather than flying to Chicago, I stayed in my Boston apartment while he chatted from Austin, Texas, where he has helped build Gym Class VR. The app offers Meta Quest users a chance to take virtual jump shots in their living rooms, and connect on alley-oops with other players thousands of miles away.
While exploding to the top of the platform’s charts last year, Gym Class drew investment from Kevin Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures and Golden State Warriors affiliate GSW Sports Ventures, following an $8 million seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz in August.
“We are convinced that games, virtual worlds and digital sports will be the new social networks,” a16z partner Andrew Chen said at the time.
The game also got the NBA’s attention. In February, the league agreed to license its courts and team IP. That integration will roll out this week.
“They’ve created one of the most engaged, largest VR communities currently on the platforms,” NBA head of digital consumer products Adrienne O’Keeffe said in an old-fashioned phone interview. “What they’re doing and how they’re engaging and bringing fans together and users together to make it a social experience is something that appeals to us.”
During our virtual shootaround, Katsen hammered home that social element. Amid a metaverse hype cycle, numerous companies created their own virtual playgrounds, but many of them have turned out to be quite empty. Build it and they will come has not applied.
Instead, Katsen said, simple, social activities like shooting hoops are needed to draw users to new worlds. His hope is that kids will come to hang out on Gym Class’ courts the way he once did on blacktops after school.
On the other end of the spectrum, Sense Arena found its first product-market fit with high-end performance training in VR, initially in hockey before expanding to tennis. It offers a subscription program for young athletes looking to get more reps stopping slapshots or returning serves.
“At the beginning, it was a lot about education about VR, how it can really help you to get better,” Sense Arena founder Bob Tetiva said. “Now we have so many success stories of college guys that just signed contracts in the NHL.” Tetiva added that 80% of Sense Arena users didn’t have a VR headset before signing up, as sports experiences drive hardware adoption rather than the other way around.
For leagues, time spent on VR concepts has paid off, even if few games are broadcast to VR headsets these days. NHL EVP for business development and innovation David Lehanski drew a direct line from the league’s years of thinking about VR possibilities to the variety of places it’s now putting its game, like on Disney+ for this year’s live-yet-animated Big City Greens Classic.
The NHL is already thinking about how to expand on that experiment to offer multiple versions of the same game, with angles and graphics geared towards different niche audiences. It also just launched its first experience in online gaming platform Roblox, bringing hockey to that youth-oriented plane.
“The way we’re really looking at VR today,” Lehanski said, “it’s creating a virtual experience, but delivering it across a 2D platform.”
There’s one significant difference between recent AI and VR trends: The former is happening on the software level, meaning massive leaps can happen overnight, and global adoption can occur without the need to build or sell cutting-edge gadgets. But that doesn’t mean the cottage industry won’t suffer the same growing pains, if only in miniature. Hype levels will rise and fall before specific use cases emerge to change the way business is done.
And even if talking computers do prove as disruptive as the internet or iPhone, sports’ primacy feels secure. In a world flooded with auto-generated content, the inherent scarcity of live sports will be more valuable than ever. Already, games have proven to be a draw in any world.