Microsoft announced their Together Mode recently, and along with the associated memes, there are broader issues about how to create telepresence and share virtual spaces. The capability was designed to help with video meeting fatigue, but now it will get a new implementation – at NBA games.
Professional sports have struggled to figure out how to return to the field/court/ice. Most are implementing bubbles and excluding fans from the games. This does restore the actual competition and provides TV broadcasts, but part of sport is spectating. Fans sharing the space with players during the contest is part of the gestalt. This has led to the rise of the cardboard fan (seen in Korean baseball earlier this year).
But this is 2020 so technology to the rescue (?). The idea is to place large monitors around the basketball court and populate those screens with Teams Together Mode sessions. This allows fans to “be” at the game, and gives the players at least some feeling of fan involvement – along with cheers (and jeers) from the virtual audience.
Previous experiments with Virtual Reality at sporting events saw limited success. This is a different time and a different technology and it will be interesting to see how both fans and players react. Odds are there will be issues with latency and perhaps spamming or zoombombing. And it will not be a replacement for actually being at the game. That said, one can argue that TV production of sporting events has gotten so good that it can be preferable to watch remotely – depending on why you’re going to the game.
Socialization and being part of an event are big drivers for live sports, and current telepresence solutions don’t facilitate that well. But that just presents an opportunity to make some of the technical and conceptual leaps to edge closer to effective and impactful virtuality. Given current trajectories with Covid-19, physical distancing may be the norm for longer than many expected or hoped. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.
This also brings up a bunch of operational/ethical questions. Will fans be tossed for unruly behavior? Will there be a “home team”? How will people find ways to hack the system? We’ve seen that virtual environments often empower the worst in human behavior. New norms and expectations will continue to evolve to deal with the emerging mixed reality relationships.