Virtual reality NHL games give fans a front-row taste of the future

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The glass is shaking in front of you. To the dismay of Carey Price, Maple Leafs hug and rejoice before your eyes.

Tilt your head skyward and the goal light spins and pulses bright red. Spin around when Auston Matthews scores his 30th goal, and you see jerseyed-up Maple Leafs fans erupt to their feet, whipping towels with joy, as scattered Habs sink deeper into their platinum seats.

Geographically, you are not at the Air Canada Centre to witness what Montreal coach Claude Julien called a playoff-calibre overtime thriller on Saturday night, yet all the sights and sounds are there, exploding from your smartphone, snapped inside the cardboard viewfinder on your face.

The second of six NHL games broadcast in 360-degree virtual reality plops you in a front-row Air Canada Centre experience from the comfort of your sofa in Regina or Kamloops or Halifax, where the popcorn is reasonably priced.

“Let’s try stuff differently. Let’s be innovative. This was another step in that direction,” says Rob Corte, vice president of Sportsnet and NHL production. “We knew it’s still in its infancy; it’s not perfect. But it’s something that has the potential to really catch on.”

Corte and his team see this season’s foray into virtual reality (VR) as another push to deliver innovative viewing experiences to the sports customer. It’s the same progressive thinking that ushered in the ref cam and hockey’s first 4K broadcast. The bonus is, this one comes with beer. The VR broadcast is best enjoyed with a viewfinder (and camera-unlocking code) packaged in cases of Molson Canadian.

After debuting in Vancouver last week and hitting the ACC over the weekend, the VR cameras head to Edmonton Saturday.

“Understand, it’s not replacing the broadcast. It’s an alternate viewing experience,” Corte explains. “Everybody’s understood that, and the response has been very positive.”

The same VR cameras that broadcast 300 hours of Olympic Games in Rio, the 2017 Grammys and a triumphant Best Picture victory for La La Land Moonlight at Sunday’s Oscars were mounted Saturday morning at the ACC for a critical Leafs-Canadiens tilt in order to provide an in-arena simulation for those who couldn’t make it due to geographic or financial means. To hold the VR viewpoint IRL could cost you $500, plus snacks.

Three custom-made 360-degree cameras, each the size of Matt Martin’s fist, were mounted along the glass rimming the boards: one behind Price, one behind Frederik Andersen, and one at centre ice above the penalty box—next to the traditional broadcast camera that points at the benches to grab coach and player reaction.

This is the eighth generation of these specialized VR cameras, which have been in development since the early 2000s. Each camera features seven lenses that capture data at 30 frames per second and record in 4K quality. Set it and forget it. Unlike a traditional NHL broadcast, there’s no cameramen needed.

Because most WiFi phone setups can’t handle 4K bandwidth, the 360 video is broadcast in high-definition as a flat image, then “stitched” together inside your device, which digitally forms a spherical world for you to explore via the Sportnet app. Think of a piece of paper with fold lines entering your phone, which turns that 2D data into origami.

Users can toggle between the three cameras’ viewpoints depending on the location of the puck, or select a fourth, curated, option—the best bet. To provide this view, a director sitting in a production truck inside the bowels of the ACC jumps between the three cameras, following the action for those watching at home or on the bus.

Gaze up at Wendel Clark’s retired number hanging from the rafters. See what condiments the lady in Row 3 squeezed on her footlong. Watch the wee Timbits players try do out-adorable one another during the first intermission. Hear the in-game Bon Jovi tunes and the “Go! Leafs! Go!” chants of the fans next to you.

No pop-up stats. No commercials. No play-by-play commentary. If you need to check the score, simply tilt your neck back and glance at the giant video board.

Yes, it’s high tech, but there’s a rawness to it. Far from overproduced, only five to seven people, including a single director, are needed onsite to execute the VR broadcast, a fraction of the Hockey Night in Canada opera.

One of the technicians says watching sports in VR takes a while to get your “sea legs,” to gather your bearings and navigate the arena you’re eavesdropping.

The NHL itself had to approve the cameras. The league has been supportive and interested in the initiative, which could evolve to see a blending of VR with some traditional broadcast elements.

We’re in the early stages of exploration here, to be sure. Tweaks and modifications will come.

But when Andrew Shaw slides in the game-winning OT goal and slams full-speed, rocking the boards in front of you, there’s a distinct sense of possibility.

Imagine buying a VR season’s pass to a prime “seat” at the ACC, able to attend every concert, Raptors game and Leafs game. Or getting to follow your favourite team on road trips, getting a taste for the in-game atmosphere of arenas around the league.

“There’s already interest in other sports and moving forward with this,” Corte says. “Go at it with an open mind.”

(Fox photos)