HBS leads XR Sports Alliance to deliver fan experiences “no longer constrained to the limitations of TV”

Accedo debuted an XR sports streaming application during Euro 2024 as a showcase for MagentaSport

If extended reality (XR) is the next field in sports broadcasting it could jump into the mainstream come summer 2026, when the FIFA World Cup lands in the US, Mexico and Canada.

HBS is one of three founding members of a new XR Sports Alliance designed to accelerate research and bring to market immersive sports applications for a new generation of consumer device.

Speaking to SVG Europe, HBS director of digital, Johannes Franken points to past VR experiments at the FIFA World Cup in Russia and the AR service offered at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

“While these were mostly used as marketing or proof of concept type of use cases, when we look forward we believe that these are the technologies where we need to be successful,” he says.

“It’s no secret that there is [not a huge] amount of headsets in the market but we see that there are some roadblocks to create a viable business case for that. That was one of the reasons why we thought we should found this alliance and bring many parties together, because solving those roadblocks can only be achieved as a group.

“Taking knowledge from content creation and service delivery out of social media productions and transferring that into the XR world is our goal in the alliance.”

“It is very, very hard to define XR rights today. How do they differentiate from traditional AV rights? Are they a subset of AV rights? How do you separate volumetric data within data rights? Every big sporting federation has their own definition.”

While HBS explores ways to produce immersive XR sports content, the other partners in the alliance – chip maker Qualcomm and OTT video solutions provider Accedo – lead on device manufacture and distribution.

Accedo will explore monetisation, data intelligence and would build the user experience. It will also advise on the kind of features sports rights owners should test first and experiment with and create a user testing panel.

“Initially we were thinking about prioritising the in-home use case, but more and more we’re hearing that rights owners and stadium or venue owners are also looking at how to enhance the in-venue experience,” says Lucy Trang Nguyen, business development director, XR, Accedo. “The technology and test framework that we’re building for in-home could potentially also be leveraged for the stadium experience.”

Patrick Costello, senior director for business development at Qualcomm, says sports XR applications are a top three interest among its users.

“We’ve been investing in XR R&D for over 15 years and that manifests itself today in a very robust hardware and software roadmap. We have a dedicated XR silicon roadmap and we address all sorts of types of devices and architectures. The aim is to scale XR to the size and scope of something like mobile at some point.”

Qualcomm is even considering developing “a purpose-built device for XR sports viewing”, says Costello.

“We see the XR market developing a little bit differently than mobile. We are already seeing purpose-built devices for the medical vertical, for defence, and fitness and health devices. We really want to collect input from alliance members and see if there is room for more of a dedicated sports viewing device for this market and run that through the test framework.”

Carving out XR rights

XR is a nascent term in media and requires some pinning down. This is part of the problem that the alliance says it wants to solve.

“XR is the companion to all the immersive technologies available today and something Apple has called spatial computing,” explains Jose Somolinos, solutions strategist and XR lead at Accedo. “Most headsets available now are not only VR or AR but also MR, meaning they are equipped with cameras that let you see the outside world (or passthrough) as if you were wearing glasses and displays that on a screen in front of your eyes.”

There are a host of technical problems from compression to delivery as well as improving the comfort level of XR wearables, but there are commercial issues that the alliance will address too.

“It is very, very hard to define [XR] rights today,” stresses Franken. “How do they differentiate from traditional AV rights? Are they a subset of AV rights? How do you separate volumetric data within data rights? Every big sporting federation has their own definition.”

Not only is there a fragmented definition of XR as a media, there’s confusion over the marketing implications too.

“How does a virtual can of Red Bull compare to a board advertisement? These kinds of definitions are all very fragmented and scattered over the market. What we are trying to do is help federations and to define a more streamlined approach,” says Franken.

XR at Euro 2024

In an example of the type of solution it brings to the field, Accedo has debuted an XR sports streaming application during Euro 2024 as a showcase for Deutsche Telekom’s sports streaming service MagentaSport.

The solution uses Xtend, Accedo’s solution for XR applications complemented with tech from Ateme and HISPlayer. It integrates live streams and data feeds and includes interactive features such as live statistics, multi-camera feeds, player cards, and 3D sponsored experiences.

In a release, Accedo said the activation introduces fans to a viewing experience “that is no longer constrained to the physical limitations of the TV screen.”

It described how the application will blend fans’ physical and virtual worlds by displaying the match in the space around the fan, while also introducing a new layer of interaction where fans can access supplementary information such as team and player statistics and watch replays from different angles. Additionally, it enables sponsors to interact with fans in new ways to drive revenue.

Nguyen says previous VR/AR experiments were mostly focused on the user experience “because that was the novelty factor” to show the public what next-generation streaming experiences could look like.

“Now we need to take this to the finish line,” she says. “We need to see beyond the user experience.”

To do this the alliance has established a test framework described as an end-to-end program for sports rights owners intended to accelerate time to market.

Within this, HBS is bringing its expertise to bare on producing live immersive video formats. Among other techniques it is examining capture from monoscopic, stereoscopic and volumetric camera arrays, perhaps married to digital twin renders of stadiums and realtime generated graphics. It could be 180 degrees or 360 degrees.

“There are a lot of learnings that we have accumulated over the years about how to cover sports in a different way,” Franken says. “It’s all very well having fancy and exotic technology but making that work at scale for large events at the efficiency and in the timeliness required to keep that content valuable – that’s a different challenge.”

Another aspect is XR editorial storytelling. “There is a question as to what extent you use static wide shots,” adds Franken. “How much movement is acceptable in a virtual environment? If you take football or soccer as an example, then there is very little depth being captured from the main high camera platform. If you capture that stereoscopically at pitch side with the players running towards you, that immersion is really what we’re after.”

He suggests XR production is likely to sit separately from the main 2D broadcast and that “there will be a different set of production utilities for a different set of deliverables and different size of tournament. Not everybody will have the ability to afford a volumetric capture system.”

Recruitment phase

The fledgling alliance wants to onboard one telco operator in key markets, which Nguyen mentions as “Germany, Europe in general, South Korea, Japan, India, China and the US”.

She says: “In each of these important markets we are aiming to get at least one representative telco. They will gain access to the white label test applications that we are building within the alliance.”

Data on XR sports would be used to shape and support business cases. “Together we will contribute by testing in our respective markets so that we can collect insightful data and report back to the alliance so that all the members can share this knowledge,” she continues.

It is anticipated that the first wave of network operators will be made public in three to four months’ time. The alliance is also targeting OEMs and ecosystem technology providers. “The reason why we want to bring the OEMs onboard is that we want to test XR experiences on market-leading devices that are launched today and on those that haven’t even launched yet,” says Costello.

“You can imagine how valuable it would be for this OEMs to get their devices into the hands of premier sports right owners and to get their feedback for improvement before launch.”

They are also keen to speak to individual teams and brands interested in XR sports activations. “In an ideal world we would cover the entire value chain for XR sports,” he says. “The alliance will facilitate an exchange around how to create future businesses and how to foster development in the industry.”

The alliance has pencilled agreements with unnamed sports federations to develop some initial experiments. “There will be an announcement once we’re able to speak about that publicly but we have the verbal commitment from those federations to start working on that,” says Nguyen.

The likes of Disney/ESPN, WarnerBros. Discovery and NBC are also being approached. “The idea is if an individual entity is spending money on a POC, we would like to leverage that learning from that investment across the entire alliance,” says Somolinos.

“One of the things that we have discovered over the past few months when we’ve been pitching this idea to sports federations, clubs and leagues, is that normally XR is driven internally by one single person or a very small team. Even in large organisations XR is considered as an experiment. We feel the loneliness of these people and how they are struggling to push internally. They are asking us individually at HBS, Accedo and Qualcomm to help them drive that upward. This is where collectively the alliance can step in.

“We can help them drive [XR use cases] internally with much more muscle than what they will be doing with their smaller experimentation and budgets.”

Nguyen calls this “forum” for members a second mission of the alliance. “We are right now in the recruiting phase.”

Subscribe and Get SVG Europe Newsletters