For sports fans like me, it's hard to beat a Sunday afternoon watching an NFL broadcast, or a night at the bar with friends, yelling at the screen during the game. Diehards like us will watch live sports anytime, anywhere – even attempting to watch a live stream with poor cell reception in the middle of the desert. And watching sports is on the verge of getting even better thanks to augmented reality (AR).
Before we dive into how AR can improve the viewing experience, it's worth distinguishing between the two AR categories: there's AR as you see it on TV, and AR as you interact with it on your smartphone.
Let's discuss AR on television first. By using tracked camera feeds to create see-through and overlay features, broadcasters are enhancing and deepening the sports-viewing experience. For example, consider swimming broadcasts that display a moving line on the pool to indicate the world-record pace for each event. Or take a look at this Danish TV station's coverage of the 2018 Tour de France; by using an in-studio AR display, broadcasters were able to explain complex race strategies in novel ways that were easy to understand and make the race more engaging.
But as all true sports fans know, televised sports are only half of the story. There are also fantasy sports to consider – the online leagues that allow participants to draft and manage virtual teams based on the performance of their real-life counterparts.
These days, many fantasy league participants engage entirely through their mobile phones. I'm a fantasy football addict, but like many people, I have mixed feelings about the amount of time I spend staring at my phone, and I'm wary of spending even more time focused on my screen. AR apps for mobile phones have the potential to change that by creating richer, more social experiences for participants.
AR Sports, for example, grafts AR onto fantasy league sports drafts. The company distributes virtual NFL players near each fantasy participant's physical location, and optional push notifications ping participants when a virtual player is in their area. To draft that player, fantasy participants must find and throw a football to the player in a real, 3D space.
For participants living or working near one another, this competition has the potential to bring a real-time quality to fantasy drafts. Imagine racing your friends or co-workers through a city or across a park to see who can be the first to draft quarterback Aaron Rodgers or tight end Rob Gronkowski. While this doesn't have much to do with live sports viewing itself, it might be a sign of how fantasy leagues can make the virtual experience even more engaging.
If we learned anything from the Pokémon GO craze of 2016-2017, it's that there's an enormous market for live, interactive AR mobile apps if they offer something to users that go above and beyond a normal playing experience. People don't want to burrow into their phones endlessly; they want their phones to help them connect with other people.
Now, so far I've talked about AR-for-TV and AR-for-mobile as two entirely separate categories. But in the near future, we may see them blend connecting fantasy sports and the actual viewing experience in unique ways.
At one point, I had a friend who ran product for the interactive X1 Entertainment Operating System, and I would relentlessly pitch him on the idea of giving me the ability to set alerts based on my various fantasy team lineups. The idea was that I'd know which channel to tune into so I could watch my quarterback live or see if my running back was in the red zone. Unfortunately, his company wasn't able to make it work, in part because of challenges with licensing and data rights.
Today, though, we're in a new world, and it's time to connect these technologies more fully.
My idea is simple. I would love to have a fantasy app that uses AR to connect my various teams across multiple sites like Yahoo! and CBS; ideally, I could connect the app to my cable, satellite, and streaming platforms as well.
When watching sports, I would go to the app for alerts about where to tune into the best viewing experience based on my teams. Imagine knowing which game has the most players across all of your teams. The app would also ping you when players are on the verge of getting more points, for example: "Your running back has 57 rushing yards and is on offense!"
The killer feature that can only come from AR would be the ability to hold your device up to the TV and have the app recognize which player is currently on screen and display their up-to-date stats. If the player is on one of your teams, the app would then display their score as well.
I can also imagine tie-in offers from fantasy- or sports-related advertisers and merchandising. The New Era Cap Company releases new NFL sideline hats nearly every week, and you could buy directly from the team that the app has recognized.
One more great feature would be the ability to clip and share highlights directly from the app to take trash talking to the next level (not that I need much help with that part of my fantasy game).
Of course, these are just a few possibilities. AR has already transformed sports viewing, and we're going to see revolutionary new apps and software sooner than we think. As always, the key will be to enhance viewers' experiences, and not just fill their screens with the latest gimmicks. If we do that, following sports with friends will be even better than it already is today.