Technology takes watching football to another level

A graphic illustrating a goal being scored on a 3D television

Widescreen, multi-camera pictures beamed onto your lounge room wall. Star-player statistics delivered by a hologram of the footballer himself.

Simulated action and 3D replays displayed on your coffee table. Is virtual reality the future of sports broadcasting?

Well, it is not quite as far-fetched as it sounds.

Microsoft released a concept video to coincide with this year's Super Bowl. It showed what the US tech giant thought was possible with its HoloLens - lightweight goggles it described as "the world's first fully untethered holographic computer".

"With HoloLens, running Windows 10, your favourite players could be brought to life through high-definition, 3D displays, allowing you to experience the athleticism and skills behind their stats," Microsoft said in a blog post.

"That game-changing play could pop up as a 3D hologram so you could view the field from all angles, all while your fantasy scores update in real time, without the need for you to look down at another screen."

This may sound a little too futuristic, but at about the same time another sports broadcasting advance came closer to reality.

In February, a select group of football fans in the United States watched a match in real time that was streamed in pin-sharp 4K Ultra High Definition (UHD).

Watching a football match with virtual reality glasses

The super-clear, immersive view of the game, between Mexico and Senegal in Miami, was made possible through a collaboration of Sony, Univision and NeuLion, using more than 20 Sony 4K HDC-4300 cameras. The NBA has also conducted trials in live-streaming 4K UHD this year.

Its eight million pixels give viewers higher resolution, more colours and greater detail than ever seen before. The technology is already being used by BT, which holds Premier League media rights in the UK and has a regular UHD service on its BT Sport Europe channel.

Spoilt for quality

"Of all the viewing experiences where UHD is most stunning, it's in live sport," BT's managing director of TV and sport Delia Bushell told SportsPro magazine. "We wanted to be at the head of the innovation wave of that. But, similar to HD, it will be a gradual phasing-in over time."

The impending shift to 4K UHD, which promises images that are four times clearer than on conventional 1080p HD, gives a glimpse of what the next generation of football watchers have to look forward to.

Today's fans are already spoilt for quality, especially compared with what their parents and grandparents had - black-and-white highlights packages on Match of the Day and no instant replays.

A person watch a football match on a tablet

For instance, Australian rights-holder Optus is giving Premier League fans a range of viewing choices this season.

They can watch every game live on television through Yes TV by Fetch, or through a dedicated app or website.

At any time, they can watch matches and highlights packages, daily shows with expert analysis and have access to detailed statistics.

Since the turn of the century, technological and social advances have totally transformed the way people watch and engage with football. And there is no turning back.

For one thing, almost all sport is now broadcast live. A report by consumer analysts Nielsen said that sport accounted for 93 of the top 100 live-viewed television programmes shown in the US in 2015, compared with 14 in 2005.

Not only does sport need to be shown live in a world dominated by the immediacy of social media, but commercial sponsorships and television rights deals also make it incredibly lucrative.

Two screens

Social media has made engagement a large factor in how we enjoy watching sport. Another Nielsen study found a close correlation between how engaged we are in a specific piece of content and how likely we are to send messages about it on Twitter.

For some football fans, it is not enough to watch on one screen - they need two for the full experience.

Today's fans also demand more access to information. Real-time stats, personal details and behind-the-scenes coverage have become important ingredients for sports broadcasters across the world.

Players and clubs star in lavishly produced shows or home-made YouTube videos to take fans into their world and show their "authentic" selves.

Fans no longer expect just to see the game - they need to be as close to it and the players as possible.

A sports fan using a smartphone at sports match

Football, however, has resisted taking viewers onto the field of play, unlike some other global sports.

Cricket and the rugby codes, for instance, have wired up players and officials for viewers to see and hear what is happening on the pitch. It was only in recent years that world football associations started using ball-tracking technology to determine whether a goal had been scored.

Football broadcasters have made some progress in improving the viewing experience: not only do cameras now follow play from every angle, but computer-generated lines can be used to show whether players are offside.

Anytime, anywhere

Such technology is being tested by football officials with the possibility of being introduced as part of a review system to determine whether a goal should be allowed to stand. Broadcasters are also able to let viewers be their own director and choose which camera angles they prefer.

The style of television broadcasting has also become more personable, with high-profile sports commentators and former star players offering analysis and insights in a variety of panel and talk show formats.

These programmes are replayed, made available on a number of platforms and discussed widely on social media, extending their "shelf lives" well beyond their allotted timeslots.

But perhaps the biggest agent of change in how we watch football is the growth of mobile technology and the devices that make mobility possible.

Smartphones and tablets have had a dramatic impact on the way we consume media, and they enable us to find information wherever we are.

This is particularly useful for football fans, who previously needed to be sitting indoors and close to a screen for 90 minutes to enjoy a match.

Mobiles, and the low-cost apps and subscription-streaming services that work with them, have made it easy to watch sport anywhere, at any time.

Perhaps everything will turn full circle, and the lounge will again be the premium venue it used to be. This time, however, it will be for football's virtual-reality show.

Optus hold the broadcast rights to the English Premier League in Australia.

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