Virtual Front Row: The Role of AI in the Evolution of Live Sports and Entertainment | Opinion

The lights dim as Beyoncé takes the stage, shimmering in a sequin leotard. As she begins “Crazy in Love,” you can feel the echo in your chest over the roar of the crowd. But you’re not actually at the AO Arena in Manchester. Instead, you immerse yourself in a hyper-realistic concert simulation created by AI. With custom camera angles and a queued playlist, it’s a concert delivered right into your living room.

Welcome to the exciting future of AI-enhanced live events. From virtual reality (VR) to custom highlight reels, artificial intelligence is changing the way we experience sports matches, concerts and more.

The UK’s £30bn live sports market has proved resilient even in uncertain economic times. Consumers continue to show willingness to pay huge amount for live matches and concerts. Despite all the technology that virtualizes, enhances and personalizes these events, the physical venue remains their beating heart.

However, there is still a place for digital technology. VR and augmented reality (AR) can make you feel like you’re sitting on the center line or front row, while still in the comfort of your own home. The Premier League offers VR streams to give remote fans an immersive matchday experience. Spectators use VR headsets or smartphones to chat with their friends while watching live matches from different angles and perspectives. Meanwhile, AR can overlay digital information and graphics to augment stadium views. AR can be used to display player stats, trivia or social media feeds.

IBM and Wimbledon use AI to transform Wimbledon’s digital experience. For 2023, they used their Watsonx platform to develop an AI commentary feature that provides automated match narration for highlight videos on the Wimbledon website and app. The system uses a generative language model, fine-tuned using Wimbledon’s unique nomenclature. This technology could eventually offer each fan their own custom-made sports or music events.

Swedish pop group ABBA is having huge success with ABBA Voyage, a virtual concert residency in London. The performance features digital avatars of long-retired band members playing hits like “Waterloo” and “Dancing Queen.” Using motion capture and visual effects technology, the show allows the band to virtually perform as holograms without being physically present in the purpose-built, demountable 3,000-capacity arena. Since opening in 2022, this AI-enhanced show has grossed £2m per week with 99% occupancy.

The UK’s £30bn live sports market has proved resilient even in uncertain economic times

While impressive, can produced content replace the appeal of live music? What happens to experience when all the imperfections of living, breathing people are removed?

With the advent of powerful AI image, video and music generators freely available to anyone with an internet connection, we are facing an existential crisis of authenticity.

Fake content will soon flood social media platforms, putting authenticity in the digital realm under siege. Generative AI can create photorealistic media and music that few can tell from the real thing. Social media has already distorted reality through selective editing and filters, which has become the norm in our feeds. As AI capabilities become more sophisticated, determining what’s real versus fake online will become increasingly challenging. This means that live and authentic events will become much more in demand.

On the plus side, sports teams are using AI and machine learning for many different applications. These range from improving the fan experience to offering game insights and attracting talent. But the usefulness of data-driven technology doesn’t stop there. Predictive analysis and optimization techniques offer another level of refinement. Event organizers can use these advanced tools to plan, schedule and manage live events.

The data for these analyzes comes from a myriad of sources. Ticket sales, social media engagement, weather forecasts and traffic patterns feed the algorithms. The goal is to proactively identify and adapt to variables that could affect the success of live events. In this way, these tools increase operational efficiency and profitability. Most importantly, they contribute to a better overall experience for fans.

As AI capabilities become more sophisticated, determining what’s real vs. fake online will become increasingly challenging

Architects and designers are using AI to help create deeply immersive experiences. As this eventually becomes the norm, how do we preserve the distinct collective energy that draws us like a magnet to live events?

The sweet smell of stadium grass, the palpable energy in the air, the sounds of people chanting and singing – these features help make any event unforgettable. While AI can personalize content, it can’t duplicate the almost transcendent feeling created when people come together in a shared space.

Despite the appeal of the digital stadiums created by the architects of the metaverse, the physical arena will remain the epicenter of live events. The pandemic seems to have confirmed this, with live events making a roaring return as soon as restrictions were lifted.

Digital platforms offer intriguing opportunities for fans who cannot attend live events. But they will never replace the real thing. Hybrid events that combine in-person and virtual experiences are emerging as a compromise. They expand accessibility while preserving the essence of live participation.

For us, the solution is to carefully blend AI-driven and other technological innovations while keeping the focus on the action in a stadium or arena. Places should remain a blank canvas that should be easily adapted and customized to different uses and formats. While VR and AR can complement this on-site experience, they cannot replicate the collective energy of thousands of people gathered to experience an event together. If integrated carefully, however, the emerging capabilities of AI to enhance live events can help preserve that magic.

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