If you have been following the adventures of Mark Zuckerberg in recent years, you would know that the man has sunk quite a few billion dollars into developing virtual reality (VR). It is, he believes, the next frontier in human society’s Internet of Things (IoT) revolution which is already well under way.
And as part of this exploration into VR, Facebook – that giant social network which Zuckerberg started in his dorm room not so long ago – is integrating the technology with how sports is experienced.
The potential here is huge, and exciting.
If you are a sports fan, listen up!
“We always felt that sports is inherently social,” said Dan Reed, Facebook’s global head of sports partnerships, in an interview with Bloomberg.
“When you go to a game, and you’re in the stadium, the interactive environment in the stadium is almost as important as what’s happening on the field.”
Yup. Anyone who’s been to a game at any stadium (except those empty ones, of course) knows what Reed is talking about here.
This is where Facebook comes in.
“[We] think that by combining sports content on a platform like Facebook where you have all your friends, you know which team your friends are rooting for, you can have that same interaction but on a global and digital scale around a sporting event.”
Now, take a moment and imagine this: You are here in Singapore, or the United States, watching a critical football game (in Singapore football is played with the feet, while in the US both hands and feet come into play), but you wish your son who is studying in London could also be there with you, right by your side, turning hoarse with you cheering for the teams.
And not only your son, but also your daughter in another part of the world in Japan, say.
Well, now it may be possible for all of you to be sitting beside each other, if Facebook’s ambitions are realised.
“The promise of VR and sports is that you can be watching a game in virtual reality as if you’re there and seated around you, virtually, can be all your friends, no matter where they’re located… We can all be there watching a game together,” Reed explains.
“Whether the game is on the platform, whether it’s highlights, whether it’s memes, whether it’s conversations happening, those conversations are happening on Facebook every single day,” Reed says.
“We have 650 million sports fans on the platform. So in a way, it’s already the world’s largest stadium.”
Of course, let it not be said that being a virtual spectator trumps being there in a real stadium, hi-fiving your pals during a game’s high points. There is no comparison – yet. Most sports fans, I suspect, would still not abandon real life for virtual reality if they can help it.
Nevertheless, the change here could be seismic because it will bring sports closer to home, literally and intimately, to hundreds of millions – perhaps billions – of people.
It is the experience which could prove addictive, much like how Facebook (and its sister services such as Whatsapp and Messenger) has become the drug of choice for more than 2 billion people worldwide.
“We think there is a real opportunity to bring that interactive element back to what you think of as consuming sports in a media environment where historically it has always had to be one way because most of that has been consumed on television,” says Reed.
But reality check: VR is still in its very early days. Zuckerberg himself has said it will take at least 10 years for it to reach the mass market, despite all that money he has put into it thus far, including purchasing Occulus, “the leader in virtual reality technology”, in March 2014 for some US$2 billion.
And just last month, it snatched Hugo Barra from Chinese company Xiaomi. Barra will run all of Facebook’s VR endeavours. And he is a big catch, given his credentials which include a stint with Google.
According to Recode: “The executive is well known in the tech community; he was a top Android exec at Google before he joined Xiaomi in 2013, where he was most recently in charge of leading the company’s efforts to expand outside of China.”
And the fact that Xiaomi is a well-known brand now, all over the world, is testament to the prowess of Barra.
Incidentally, Facebook shares went on a mini rampage through the charts in early January after spectacular financial results were released, and now sits atop its highest point ever.
So, there’s a lot going on at the world’s biggest social network.
But back to virtual reality.
“I honestly don’t know how long it will take,” Zuckerberg himself said recently. “It could be five years, it could be 10 years, it could be 15 or 20. My guess is that it will be at least 10.”
Reed agrees with the time frame. “We think there’s great potential, along the same lines as what I described earlier.”
He describes VR as “the holy grail”, which everyone is interested in.
“But there are a number of steps that need to happen along the way, both technological and production techniques and all those things.
“We think of virtual reality as not just a new and different experience, but it’s actually a very powerful way to connect people, which again is a mission for us.”
So, if you’re a sports fan, keep your fingers crossed – watching your favourite sports hero could be a very up close and personal experience in the not too distant future, for you and your distant love ones.