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Volume 21 No. 6

Technology

One of the key takeaways of the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was simply its breathtaking scale. With a record level of exhibit space, attendance poised to at least challenge if not surpass last year’s total of 184,279, and a constant series of events up and down Las Vegas Boulevard, there was simply no way to see it all. But here were a few key highlights that caught our eye:

DiamondFX

Photo by: DIAMONDFX
What is it: A virtual reality-based training simulator for baseball. The product allows a batter to simulate the experience of facing a specific major league pitcher, using real-world Pitch F/X data that shows specific locations, velocities and trajectories, in an effort to accelerate their development.
Who showed it: New York-based TrinityVR.
 Who’s excited by it: The company counts two undisclosed MLB teams as clients, who are using the technology with prospects at their minor league affiliates and Dominican Republic academies. TrinityVR also met with more than a dozen other clubs at last month’s baseball Winter Meetings.
How much will it cost: Varies. Software licensing is coupled with hardware costs that are quickly falling as VR headsets become more affordable.
What are the hurdles: A VR simulation remains just that, and doesn’t provide tactile feedback or the experience of hitting actual, live pitches. But using VR also can help prevent injuries that occur through repetitive stress. And anything that can aid minor league development is becoming increasingly important as more MLB teams favor their own farm systems over building with pricier free agents.

Hisense’s exclusive World Cup app

Photo by: HISENSE
What is it: A special version of the Fox Sports Go app that will be included in select Hisense smart TV models that will show this year’s FIFA World Cup and the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Who showed it: Hisense. The Chinese technology company, which also controls the Sharp brand in the U.S., is not a household name in TVs in the way that Samsung and Sony are. But it is seeking to make noise with exclusive partnerships such as this one with Fox Sports, and a separate but related FIFA sponsorship for this year’s World Cup.
Who’s excited by it: Fox Sports, which has never done a customized version of its streaming app, and potentially hard-core soccer fans who can’t get enough World Cup coverage in traditional forums.
How much will it cost: TV set costs will vary based on screen size but the app itself and the World Cup content it offers, including some camera angles and content not offered in the linear broadcast, will come at no additional cost.
What are the hurdles: Convincing consumers to embrace a lesser-known TV brand that calls itself “the biggest company you’ve never heard of.” But it’s possible the Fox Sports brand will appear at retail and other Hisense marketing activations.

Voice-activated technology

Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
What is it: Rivals to Amazon’s near-ubiquitous Alexa personal assistant and Apple’s Siri technology, showing up in all sorts of products from smart TVs and cable set-top boxes to speakers of all shapes and sizes and sports-oriented headphones.
Who showed it: Literally hundreds of companies, led by Amazon and rival entity Google, which is making a big push this year with its Google Assistant. Many third parties, including a fast-growing collection of pro teams, are developing their own voice-activated programs to take advantage of the technology. In sports, the voice-activated programs offer content such as scores, statistics, tune-in information and wayfinding.
Who’s excited about it: Virtually the entire sports and technology industries, which are finding accelerating consumer adoption of voice-activated tech and the ease it brings compared to traditional text-based queries.
How much will it cost: Varies based on the product, but small speakers embedded with either Google or Amazon voice-activated platforms can easily be had for under $50.
What are the obstacles: As the tech companies battle for supremacy in this area, brands and content producers such as sports teams and networks will likely feel pressure to sign exclusive deals with a single player, potentially turning off fans who use a rival platform.
— Compiled by Eric Fisher


Intel used CES to outline ambitious VR plans for the Winter Olympics.
Photo by: INTEL
The experience delivered through virtual reality is just that, a simulated re-creation of some other place. But the debate around how big VR can become, and growing impatience with the current state of the technology, is all too real.

VR, particularly as a mainstream consumer play, was again one of the focal points of last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which grew to a record 2.7 million square feet of exhibit space. Foremost among the bevy of VR-related announcements, particularly in sports, was Intel’s news that it is producing more than 50 hours of live VR content and on-demand replays from next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The move, complete with a variety of viewer-controlled camera angles from many events, represents Intel’s largest push yet into VR sports content, and couples the technology giant’s status as an International Olympic Committee sponsor through 2024.

“Fans won’t just witness the moment. They will experience it, as if they’re actually there,” said Brian Krzanich, Intel CEO.

Intel’s effort, and other sports VR productions also heralded at CES, will no doubt drive further consumer adoption of VR. But beneath the Las Vegas glitz and splashy announcements was a troubling undercurrent that VR is still not growing fast enough, and instead may be outpaced by its technological cousin, augmented reality.

Technology market analysis firm Canalys estimated that more than 1 million VR headsets were sold in the third quarter of 2017, the first time that mark has been reached in a single quarter. But that number remains dwarfed by 383 million smartphones and nearly 55 million TVs sold globally during the same period, according to data from Gartner Inc. and IHS Markit, respectively.

Virtual reality, of course, remains a comparatively much newer and more immature technology. But bullish predictions in many corners of a meteoric rise in VR consumption soon after Facebook bought Oculus in 2014 have yet to materialize.

And even more problematic to many sports and technology executives is the current form of VR hardware. Even as more sports-related VR programming is steadily being developed, and graphics and picture quality continue to improve, consuming VR still requires putting on a pair of bulky goggles and having a largely solitary experience.

That isolation stands at odds with the highly communal and social nature of watching sports. And promises of embedding VR into something resembling a pair of sunglasses appears to still be at least several years in the future. Augmented reality, conversely, does not require goggles, and instead relies on a smartphone.

“I love immersive media, but I’m not sure how long it’s going to take [to reach mass adoption],” said former ESPN senior executive Marie Donoghue. “The user experience isn’t quite there yet.”

Amid the worry, however, there are some promising trends for VR advocates. Several manufacturers, including Oculus and Lenovo, are developing all-in-one headsets that do not require a clipped-in smartphone to help power the video.

“We are very enthused by a lot of the new all-in-one units we’re seeing come into the market and definitely think that’s going to help bring in a new era of consumer interest,” said Danny Keens, vice president of content for NextVR, the California-based outfit active in sports production in the enhanced format.

Also a key focus for many VR hardware and software developers is improving the social experience to make consuming immersive video less solitary. Many of the group-viewing features will include elements such as social media posts, audio connections and avatars of friends watching the same content.

“It’s important to remember that we’re really still in the first inning of what this will ultimately become,” said David Aufhauser, managing director for Intel Sports.

In the meantime, companies such as Intel and NBC are counting on major, mainstream sports events such as the Olympics to drive awareness of VR, just as they have in the past for TV technologies such as high-definition and 4K resolutions.