Euro 2016 means every football fan from Galway to Istanbul will be congregating in the continent’s pubs, bars and living rooms to feast on the action.
And while telly coverage has come on leaps and bounds since the days of black and white, bad suits and Barry Venison, we still watch footie in much the same way. But thanks to the ever-advancing march of technology, that’s all about to change – and it’s going to make watching the beautiful game a truly immersive experience (and no, that’s not a reference to communal baths).
Read on for the lowdown on three new tech trends that will alter how we experience football.
If you thought HDTV provided a stunning amount of image detail, 4K goes even further. In fact, with a resolution of 3840 x 2160 pixels, 4K offers precisely four times the detail of 1920 x 1080 full HD video.
What does that mean for football? Well, it means 4K offers the best quality images of the beautiful game you can see outside of actually attending a match and viewing it with your own eyeballs. Individual blades of grass are clearly visible, as are the pores, stubble and sweat on players’ faces – it’s a bit like gazing through a window, rather than looking at a television screen.
Basically, 4K is a dead cert to replace HD as the standard for watching big sporting events on TV in the not-too-distant future, in much the same way HD has supplanted standard definition in recent years.
Mix in HDR – a new form of colour reproduction that delivers a wider gamut of brightness, making TV pictures more akin to the world we see with our actual eyes – and you’ve got a headier cocktail than anything being poured down England fan’s throats during pre-tournament “training sessions”.
4K football broadcasts are already here: the BT Sport Ultra HD channel, available to anyone with a BT Ultra-HD box at the cost of an extra £5 a month, shows selected Barclays Premier League, UEFA Champions League and FA Cup matches (you’ll need a 4K television to watch, of course – but these are rapidly becoming far more affordable). The plans of other broadcasters are a little unclear, although Sky has confirmed that its recently launched Q service will begin offering 4K content this summer. The BBC ran 4K trials during the 2014 World Cup, so it’s certainly on Auntie’s radar too.
With a new wave of advanced virtual reality headsets arriving on the market in the first half of 2016, VR is currently big business – and the sporting world is keen to play a major part in this particular tech revolution.
By strapping on a VR headset (usually a high resolution display which, when viewed through special lenses, creates a 3D picture that changes in accordance with the wearer’s head movements) and a pair of headphones, a person is transported into an immersive virtual environment. Imagine being able to watch the action from a first-person on-pitch viewpoint rather than from the sidelines – players running past on all sides, packed stadium stands looming above you and the ball sailing over your head.
It’s not often that we get to view this most familiar of sports from a fresh perspective, and that makes VR’s potential truly intriguing – even if, for now, such an experience is more potential rather than an actual product. Football-related VR is currently limited to a number of short experiences such as those featured in Manchester City’s free CityVR app: 360-degree videos that afford you a panoramic first-person view of the club’s Etihad Stadium from its centre circle, or let you stand in the wall as a player belts a free kick at you.
The CityVR app works with iOS and Android phones, which work with affordable headset adapters such as Google Cardboard. So, if you have a recent smartphone, chances are you can check out VR for yourself on the cheap. And, as these kind of experiences are app-based, there’ll certainly be a lot more arriving in the coming months. They’ll be joined by richer, more in-depth football VR experiences when super-powerful headsets like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR all hit the market.
Augmented reality (or AR) uses technology to enhance what we already see in the real world, usually by overlaying images and text upon it. There are a couple of ways to achieve this: a purpose-built headset with a transparent visor upon which images can appear; or by employing an existing device like a smartphone or tablet, using its camera and sensors as a way to place it in real space and then laying information over a real-time video feed on its screen.
In similar fashion to virtual reality, AR has been around for a few years, but is only now breaking into the mainstream market. There aren’t any big name AR headsets due to hit the shops this year, but an early developer’s edition of Microsoft’s Windows 10-powered HoloLens has just arrived, so expect a full consumer launch in a year or two.
At the time of writing, there aren’t any great footie-related AR applications to get your teeth (or rather your eyes) into, but there is an example from the American version of football: Microsoft’s recent “what if” demo of a Super Bowl final by way of HoloLens hints at its potential for delivering the ultimate match day experience.
The short video shows the broadcast view expanding far beyond the confines of the TV screen, match statistics appearing to float in mid-air, play-by-play diagrams seemingly projected onto a coffee table and life-sized players inhabiting the room. We’ve come a long way from Jimmy Hill boring everyone to tears in a drab studio. Incredible stuff – and all controllable via gestures and swipes from the user’s hands.
While such experiences are a few years off – broadcasters would be required to provide a huge amount of additional info and images, for starters – they will arrive eventually. Call it the next stage of the digital TV’s red button (or Ceefax, for those of a certain age).
Basically, with VR, AR and 4K video beginning to change the way we watch football, it won’t be long before every game you watch from home is a a major event. All you need to do is provide the beer and snacks – let the gadgets handle the rest.