Augmented Reality Has Its Limits, But Is Here To Stay In Sports

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  • Familiar obstacles when it comes to integrating augmented reality for teams include the duration of time required to launch a new activation and challenges in finding the right vendor.
  • Organizations spanning all major sports leagues continue to roll out new AR initiatives in droves, with the market for the technology set for meteoric growth through 2025.
Washington Capitals Ovechkin
Photo Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The sports industry continues to showcase the breadth of opportunities available to teams willing to implement augmented reality to boost the fan experience.

To date, AR technology has mostly been used by organizations looking to build deeper connections with fans through collaborations with players and the introduction of gaming – all while simultaneously improving the in-arena experience by providing real-time venue information to guests.

This innovation is all made possible by leveraging cameras already equipped on mobile devices. But similar to other emerging technologies before it, AR requires a steep learning curve for a majority of the interested parties attempting to utilize it properly, experts said.

At least two of the sports industry’s more innovative franchises have conceded that limitations to using AR include the duration of time required to launch a new activation and challenges in finding the right vendor. Seldom do organizations additionally have the required AR talent in-house to introduce new offerings to market on their own. 

“You can imagine there are a lot of vendors coming out in the AR space trying to get your business,” said James Heuser, senior director of digital media for the Washington Capitals. “It’s tough to know when you are getting the right value, but we think we’ve found the right partner.”

Heuser helped launch the Capital’s first two AR oriented projects this year in partnership with Balti Virtual, which has previously worked with prominent brands like Marvel and Under Armour.

In April, the Capitals unveiled a new “Tilt the Ice” game, which prompted fans to download the vendor’s app to scan barcodes on coasters in-and-around pubs located near Capital One Arena to play. 

The project was deemed a success, as each fan played the game close to nine times on average, Heuser said. 

However, Heuser said the team “noticed a barrier there.”

“It’s tough to encourage people to download another app,” he said.

When the Capitals unveiled another AR experience in October with Ovi O’s – a new cereal featuring superstar Alex Ovechkin sold by regional grocery chain Giant Food – the organization and Balti Virtual used Snapchat’s Lens Studio to host the game with the expectation that more of its fans already had that app downloaded to their phones. 

In a similar concept to “Tilt the Ice,” fans scanned barcodes on cereal boxes to unlock a mini hockey game where users could shoot Ovi O’s at targets with Ovechkin. One in five buyers of Ovi O’s cereal played the game, according to Heuser. 

“We launched two this year, but would love to get our number of AR experiences up to three to five using tent poles like player milestones or the start of the playoffs,” he said, adding that virtual reality is another emerging trend the Capitals are keen on integrating into the fan experience as more consumers buy devices that can utilize the technology. 

“As an organization, we’re always looking to push into emerging technologies and identified AR as an opportunity to activate with partners,” Heuser added. “We’re having a lot of fun with it, and are right now actively looking to extend the shelf life of Ovi O’s with future launches.”

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According to consulting firm Kenneth Research, the global AR market is expected to reach $149 billion by 2025 at an annual growth rate of 56%. Deloitte also estimates that more than 1 billion smartphone users created AR content at least once last year, with roughly one-third of that consumer base doing so at least once per month. 

Noticing that trend, AR’s adoption in sports is now prevalent across multiple teams. 

For example, the Los Angeles Kings released player cards that allow fans to scan items for videos and other content. 

Mercedes-Benz, the official stadium sponsor of the Atlanta Falcons, is additionally using AR to allow fans to celebrate touchdowns with their favorite players. 

Even MLB and the NBA are knee-deep in the technology, having launched their own initiatives, AR Post reported

The Sacramento Kings were notably one of the earliest adopters of AR back in 2014. Before the team’s opening of its new Golden 1 Center, the Kings allowed fans to get a virtual tour of the new arena on their smartphones and tablets. A similar approach was later used in 2017 to preview the team’s new uniforms, which fans were able to wear virtually.

The organization’s latest AR initiative is in partnership with Imagination Park Technologies, a Canadian software company specializing in AR development. As part of the activation, fans inside the Golden 1 Center will be able to walk around the arena and take photos with digital players, while also participating in AR scavenger hunts and sweepstakes.

“We are pushing the envelope with another innovative company to see where AR takes us,” said Ryan Montoya, the Kings’ chief technology officer.

From a technology perspective, a big selling point for the Kings was Imagination Park Technologies’ ability to enable executives to build new AR integrations within the team app, according to Scott Monaco, senior director of interactive and fan experience. 

“When we jumped into the AR space a couple of years ago, it was the same story when speaking to a number of different teams. You had to wait four to five weeks to create a new offering,” said Monaco. “But the cool thing about Imagination is its all in the cloud. So new experiences can be created instantly. I can go into the locker room and shoot videos of De’Aaron Fox, get it into the software, and create a new experience in minutes.”

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According to Montoya, delivering a great AR experience relies heavily on the data teams can provide. With more than 1,000 sensors, access points, and beacons inside of its home arena, the Kings have plenty of it. 

“We know our fans walk around with computers in their pockets that they look at 200 times per day,” he said. “Ultimately whether a fan wants to know how fast players are running down a court or where the nearest restroom is, it makes their world a lot more efficient.”