If Microsoft has its way, future Super Bowl viewers will watch the game play out live on their coffee tables, as players outfitted with helmet cams provide up-close-and-personal views of the game. And on the field, coaches and players will see the same video the fans see—and adjust their game plans accordingly.
NFL executives and players joined Microsoft executives on Tuesday in a panel billed as the “Future of Football”—a look at novel new ways to incorporate technology into America's favorite sport.
Lest we forget, Microsoft already partners with the NFL, outfitting players with Surface Pro 3 tablets for sideline use during games. Players can use the tablets to see images of their most recent plays, and now Microsoft hopes to bring its forthcoming HoloLens augmented-reality headset into the football mix as well.
Currently, football fans at home can get a better understanding of what’s happening on the field with the NFL app for Xbox One. The app displays RFID data from sensors sewn into the players’ jerseys, providing viewers with real-time estimates of, say, how fast a receiver is sprinting downfield.
But now a Microsoft concept video takes this data-monitoring scheme to the next level: Imagine virtual avatars of players bursting from your wall, as well as a holographic view of the game playing out on your table or floor. It sounds wild, but that's the NFL HoloLens experience that Microsoft imagines.
Why this matters: Mike Nichols, the corporate vice president of Xbox Marketing, said the HoloLens vision could play out “sooner rather than later.” It’s a dazzling piece of marketing that keeps the HoloLens in play as sort of a magical totem of future computing and entertainment scenarios. Still, the HoloLens has yet to debut as a developer kit, let alone a consumer device (the first dev release will likely arrive soon, followed by a consumer release possibly a year or two down the road).
Surface sideline video coming soon
The HoloLens' not-so-imminent release notwithstanding, Microsoft and the NFL plan to make changes to how today’s Surface technology is implemented, especially in reviewing the game as it happens. We might laugh at the sideline Surface tablets today, but they really are an improvement over earlier, er, technologies.
Indeed, until three years ago, the NFL used technology that sounds like something out of the Cold War: Quarterbacks would be handed a sheaf of black and white photos when they returned to the bench, according to New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
“You can imagine with a 15-play drive, there’d be like 40 pages worth of stuff,” Brees said. “The staple wouldn’t go all the way through, and photos would be dangling and falling out, and then you’d have two plays and have to go back out on the field. Now you walk to the sideline and it’s seamless.”
Brees said that on one occasion using the Surface, he noticed how a receiver ran behind a defender on a pass play. So he asked the receiver to run in front of the defender the next time they ran the play, and he scored.
Currently, teams using the Surface Pro 3s can see how drives play out just as soon as players return to the sideline—but they’re just still images, taken at half-second intervals. In part, that’s because the NFL’s competition committee wants to make video access fairly available to all, said Brian Rolapp, executive vice president of media for the NFL. The league has tested the use of video, however, and Rolapp says “we don’t think that there’s a technological barrier to its adoption."
Imagine Bowl allows fans to dream big
Amid all the pre-Super Bowl hype, Microsoft sponsored ImagineBowl, a challenge of sorts that asked fans to envision how an app or technology could be used to improve the viewing experience. By Friday, Microsoft will have whittled three finalists down to one winner.
The three finalists include PlayerMetrics, an extension of the RFID sensor program that would give coaches and fans further insight into how a player is performing, including data on hydration, core body temperature, and recovery from injuries or extensive workouts.
Stadium View, the second proposal, would provide fans in the stadium with the same augmented-reality experience as those at home. Sitting in your stadium seat, you'd see projections of the first-down line, field-goal distance, and other virtual field markers on your phone or HoloLens—along with info on which bathroom has the shortest line.
The third proposal, Player View, would embed pinhole cameras into players’ helmets, giving fans a first-person view of how action plays out.
HoloLens provides the sizzle
It’s the HoloLens, however, that could provide the most dramatic change to the NFL viewing experience. Microsoft's concept video showed a virtual Russell Wilson bursting through the wall into a living room, giving fans a chance to quite literally measure themselves against the NFL star, says Nichols.
The holographic view would also give fans a chance to walk around the “field” and view a play from any angle, zooming in and out using familiar pinch-to-zoom gestures. But the video also imagines that two buddies would each be viewing the game on the HoloLens—and who knows what that will cost.
HoloLens sounds like a fantastic way to view the game—but so was 3D TV, and we all know how that turned out.