DirecTV Enters the VR Race, with a Focus on Sports and Music

by Matthew Terndrup • June 29th, 2015

Virtual reality is about to hit the mainstream, and it is about to hit it hard. It seems like just about every major company these days is experimenting with the medium. Now, the broadcasting satellite service provider known as DirecTV has emerged through the cover of technology events to show off what they are working on.

DirecTV has been leaving clues about their interest in VR for a couple months, starting around the time when the International Business Times (IBT) wrote an encompassing article describing the innovations coming out of DirecTV’s research labs. Senior Vice President Tony Gonsalves told IBT that they are “trying to take the entertainment experience a little farther out,” and that “no one is really sure how that is going to manifest.

I started hearing rumors of DirecTV’s increased involvement with VR content in April of 2015, at a poolside party in April for the Digital Hollywood conference. Shortly after that event, DirecTV sponsored the Silicon Beach Fest in June – providing them with an exhibitor table to demo their new VR experiences. They humbly loaded up two demos, specifically geared towards sports and music audiences.


DirecTV’s Product Management, Vikash Sharma, stands proudly at their booth at SBF 2015 [source – alistdaily]

The 1st demonstration put me in a seat at a boxing ring at a Big Knockout Boxing (BKB) match. Two women faced off a brief period of time, taking jabs at and dodging each other. The view was pretty far away, and there was an instinct to try and get closer to the action. This was a bit limiting. Also, the head tracking stopped working for some reason causing the images to stick to the front of my face. However, that demo alone shows where DirecTV might be heading with the project.

Another experience loaded up on a Gear VR  teleported me into a home theater with a level of detail rarely seen in early prototypes. The fabric of the chairs was remarkably polished. The lighting set a comfortable and familiar movie watching mood.

When I looked up, a giant 2D screen played NFL clips and various sports related videos. In one of them, a baseball player walked into view on the screen, picked up a bucket of balls, and tossed them as a group towards the camera. The baseballs then moved passed the 2D screen floating in a 3D dimensional space surrounding me in the virtual room. It was beautiful to watch a transition from 2D to 3D produce such feelings of awe.


This photo shows approximately the distance from the ring in the DIRECTVR demo [source – BKB]

Although the virtual theater I was in was empty, I can easily image myself joining friends from across the world to watch a sporting event together. DirecTV already has the broadcasting capabilities to make it a social experience by routing video and audio signals from satellites in space and towers on the ground right into people’s homes.

AT&T is also in the process of acquiring them, giving DirecTV access to additional networking infrastructures. As long as the acquisition is legally permitted, both companies are in a good position to send virtual reality content into both wired and mobile VR systems.

Interestingly enough, AT&T has been looking to get into the VR industry for decades. Back in the late 1980s, they were talking with VPL Research. Mitch Altman one of the engineers at VPL described in a Flashback interview with us what AT&T was attempting to do. Now, it looks like ATT&T may finally have a route to consumer VR through the acquisition of DirecTV.

They basically wanted data coming in through the form of these realities. Of course we don’t have virtual reality in everyone’s home (yet). That never turned into a reality in real reality; but we do have in everyone’s home the world wide web and cheap computers. – Mitch Altman

Furthermore, DirecTV’s collaboration with BKB has the potential to increase immersion factors in the future as well. This can be determined by looking at what technologies BKB has been recently experimenting with. For instance, during a Middleweight boxing fight between Gabe Rosado and Curtis Stevens in April, BKB deployed sensorized gloves to record the punches thrown.

Popular Mechanics reported that the wearables were made by South Carolina-based EFD Sports and contained StrikeTec sensors that are about an inch square and several millimeters thick. The devices, as mentioned in the article, are “equipped with Bluetooth-connected accelerometers that will record metrics including speed and force, as well as punch counts and types, such as hook, jab, and uppercut.” The goal was to use the data to augment replays, providing graphics with the metrics of the punch in super slow-motion.

In addition, BKB has been reported by Sport Techie to be working with Aqueti to record content with 360 degree camera arrays. As described, these high-resolution devices “capture every angle from the fight, including a customizable one that could be attached to the referee’s headband for their vantage point.”

All DirecTV needs to do is take the stitched footage and put it in a VR headset for a unique perspective of a sporting event never seen before. They could even put the wearable cameras on the fighters if they want and then record the data from the punches that will surely drive the level of presence to unimaginable heights. I can already imagine ads for premium pay-per-view services touting phrases like “feel what it is like to fight a boxing champion” or “watch the match from the perspective of the ref.

augmented boxing

We still don’t know exactly what DirecTV is going to do with VR on a consumer level, or even if they will bring anything more that prototypes into the light anytime soon; but it is clear they experimenting the medium. Keep an eye on them, because they are poised to make a big mark on the industry if they do decided to make the plunge. Hopefully we hear more details from them soon.