The video games industry is one of the fastest developing areas of entertainment in terms of technological innovation and revenue in play.
The best titles, often very successful historical sagas, generate manic expectations by the army of gamers and this spurs developers to employ state-of-the-art technologies to create products capable of generating even more profit. Over the years, the trend for using new consoles and instruments to astound the public and attract the investment of huge budgets has turned video games into something more than just simple pastimes for teenagers like they were a decade or so ago.
Suffice it to say that over fifty percent of entire Italian population enjoys playing video games. Gamers are 28 years old on average and the men-to-women ratio is 6 to 4! These staggering figures alone indicate that we are addressing a social-cultural phenomenon that involves much of the population.
However, instead of tackling the matter by minimising or even demonising it (as the media often do), we will try to learn more about it from another approach: that of gaming developed for training and sports competitions!
Sports have often been the topic of major productions but what is really interesting is understanding how video games can actually help athletes.
Surprisingly, a great deal.
Sports simulators are critical for improving the performance of athletes on all levels, but also to reveal the sportsman in each of us and to reliably indicate what sport to pick and where our talents lie.
Video games can help athletes in two ways: there are software-only sports simulators and those provided with a hardware element as well. The latter category includes the “extreme” driving simulators used by Formula 1® teams to train their drivers as if they are on the most important circuits worldwide. These simulators are perfect reproductions of the cockpit of a F1®, with steering wheel, gear shift and electronic controls, and reproduced in equally perfectly detail is the feedback that the drivers receive according to the track type and the simulated speed of the car.
Ferrari driver Vettel, for instance, is a true believer of the help that computers can provide to his performance and when he is not on the track he is training with his Dallara racing driving simulator to memorise race tracks and perfect automatic reactions. Software-only simulators were used in the past, although they were not equipped with a reproduction cockpit or were they capable of simulating racing conditions or providing physical feedback. For example, former world champion Jacques Villeneuve was known to have used one to learn the details of tracks where he had never driven back in 1997.
Obviously, no multi-million investment project could recreate the contextual elements that make the difference between a simulator and the real world. The contact with the tarmac, fear, the adrenaline of the race and the stress of the competition are difficult to replicate on a screen sitting in a model of a Formula 1® car firmly anchored to the ground.
A different matter is that of the sports simulators developed for virtual reality visors (as we will see).
Soccer is one of the most popular sports worldwide and this popularity is reflected in video games. Titles include Pro Evolution Soccer (Pes) and Fifa on the various major platforms, like Playstation 3 and 4, Xbox One, Wii and Wii U, Nintendo 3DS and Playstation Vita. Naturally, simulating a football match with actual physical movements using a home console is impossible, but football software simulators can help to improve tactical or management skills. High-quality games are fun and highly detailed featuring the most important championships and teams in the world with official licenses, updated score boards and the possibility of backing up and sharing your career and tactical and management decisions with a community of gamers connected online via Playstation Plus, Miiverse or Xbox Live. To better understand how formative an approach of this type to the world of football can be, it will suffice to mention an anecdote on Portuguese coach André Villas-Boas, José Mourinho's former vice and trainer of Porto, Chelsea and Tottenham, who started his training career after Robson suggested some tactical changes based on its gaming experience with soccer management simulators.
Remaining in the realm of home consoles, to which goes the merit of having turned our abodes into game arcades, we cannot avoid another type of sports simulators, those with movement sensors that can mimic the actions and features of many disciplines very realistically. Products such as Microsoft Kinect, Sony Move and Nintendo Wii Plus have allowed millions of players to hone their skills in sports like golf or high-speed downhill skiing or to practise high-intensity gymnastics and to take dancing lessons. They have whetted the appetite of enthusiasts for what for the past few months has been considered one of the most astounding innovations for sports video games and more: virtual reality.
Before looking into this new, mind-blowing trend, which is destined to take the world by storm, it is worth mentioning another step which is not smaller than those above in the evolution of video game sport simulators, namely that of wearable mobile devices. Today's developments in smartphones, tablets, smartwatches and fitness bracelets means that everyone can monitor their sports performance and "tune" their bodies to achieve their physical perfection goals. There are smartphones and smartwatches that count how far you have run, examine your movements in a martial art session and count crunches and weightlifting workouts at the gym. Other capabilities allow them to be paired to accessories and clothing using Bluetooth technology to monitor specific vital parameters and can be a major help for exercising by replicating the effects of a personal trainer regardless of the time and space constraints with virtual rewards.
And we get to virtual reality, at last!
Mobile devices are one of the many elements that are making virtual reality a true mass phenomenon. The rapid development of this technology is showing us something which until a short while ago was the stuff of science fiction films or that we could only read about in books set in the distant future.
This communication medium is close to revolutionising many aspects of our everyday like, from work to entertainment and – of course – sports. The tipping point will be 2016.
Many projects have been kicked off in parallel in the steps of the Oculus Rift (a technology acquired by Facebook) that opened the way for virtual visors by other brands and will be completed within the year. The most well-known and capable of providing an impeccable experience from all points of view include the mentioned Oculus Rift, Playstation VR and HTC Vive VR (with prices in the range from 400 to 1000 plus Euro, not including the computer or processing console), but an array of other lower cost visors are coming our way. By exploiting the screen of a smartphone and a cardboard structure costing only a few Euro (yes, that is right, cardboard) they are ready to offer unforgettable entertainment and adventure experiences (suffice it to mention what specifically developed role play, action and arcade games can offer in terms of immersivity) to everyone one smaller budget.
Naturally, there are most promising prospects also for sports simulators in this new, emerging sector. Leaving the physical controller behind, we will don a 3D visor, in which a head, hand or whole body movement tracking system is implemented, to visualise a virtual world with audio and vibratory-acoustic sensations. The system can simulate car or motorcycle races by simulating the steering wheel or handlebar with your hands or let you play a football match with real life friends connected online by running on the spot, not to mention extreme sports like climbing or hand gliding using the breath-taking graphics that this technology can offer.
Another very interesting aspect related to sports simulation and virtual reality visors is that aimed at developing sports psychology.
The use of VR systems for viewing realistic 3D sports environments can generate anxiety in athletes and trigger sensations comparable to those which can be felt during competitions or training thus preparing them to withstanding the emotional pressure they will experience in key situations. This is also known as high-stress training and is fundamental for the athletes who aim at achieving world-class levels in competitions of excellence, such as World Championships, Continental Championships or the Olympic Games. By simulating imminent sports environments and scenarios in a virtual reality system the expectations of athletes can be developed before the event allowing them to focus on relaxation and cognitive strategies aimed at improve their performance.
We mentioned that virtual reality is the last frontier of sports video gaming currently available on the market but in reality (no pun intended!) the next step is already in the making. Augmented reality is a specific technology capable of adding information to the real life scene. This can be achieved by means of small visors fitted on head sets allowing to see the surrounding world though a semi-transparent screen on which the graphic and user interface generated by the computer are also shown. A camera placed on the visor continuously acquires information on the surrounding world according to its position and creates information-type objects for supplementing the scene. Future augmented reality devices may be used differently from virtual reality visors in sports to promote greater involvement for spectators during the event although not simulating first person experience, at least for the time being.
In terms of mass distribution, augmented reality is still at its earliest stages although technology giant Microsoft (one of the first to experiment with alternative ideas for virtual sports simulation with Kinect, compatible with Xbox 360 and Xbox One) has announced its next project called Hololens.
The 3D holograms of Hololens can project match or sports event data in real time, while simple gestures can be used to navigate the menus and select the information to be viewed. The statistics of a match or competition can be projected on various surfaces, such as a wall for example, to prevent overcrowding the semi-transparent screen with pictures and overlaid information. The advertisement created by Microsoft to advertise Hololens shows a group of sports fans projecting the images of an NFL match on a table thus releasing the concept of entertainment from that of a television screen or other similar medium.
Unlike virtual reality visors, Oculus Rift, Htc Vive VR or Playstation VR, Microsoft Hololens and the other augmented reality visors which will be launched in the future will not need a computer or a mobile phone to work. Although augmented reality technology is in its early stages, the Hololens, which is the only device to have reached a satisfactory degree of development, is expected to be launched on market no later than 2017.