The 2015 US Open, which started Monday, Aug. 31, is expected to welcome around 700,000 fans in the Flushing Meadows, Queens, section of New York over a two-week span.
Navigating through the transformed minicity's six fully-staffed restaurants, 60 concession stands and 20 retail stores, thousands of those people will find their way to the You vs. Maria Sharapova virtual reality booths before matches, as part of the American Express Fan Experience. I was one of them during the US Open's first evening.
Walking through the East Gate of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and into the American Express Fan Experience, I felt pretty confident that I could at least return a shot from Sharapova, one of the better women's singles players of the last decade and 2006 US Open winner. It wouldn't take long before I was proven wrong, though.
Upon stepping into one of the three virtual reality booths within the Amex Fan Experience tent—which also includes a fully-functioning bar and lounge—I was outfitted with an HTC Vive virtual reality headset with integrated headphones and handed a Nintendo Wii-like wireless remote controller.
A helpful technician working the booth instructed me that I can move two steps in front of me, to the left and right, but only one step backward, assuring me that if take more than one step backward and hit the green screen behind me that she'd catch me.
With that said, I was ready to start my virtual reality experience. Once the software turned on, my sense of peripherals completely vanished. I was fully immersed. A CGI-generated virtual reality player coach appeared, instructing me to look around and soak in the atmosphere, before taking me through the motions of getting a feel for my tennis racket and allowing me to take a few practice shots. Then, he introduced me to Sharapova across the net.
As the experience began, Sharapova and I exchanged a few warm-up practice shots back and forth across the net. So far, so good. At her command, Sharapova announced that we were going to try some volleys—shots where the ball is hit before it hits the ground—next. Although I made contact on each of the three balls that Sharapova sent my way, each shot I returned sailed out of bounds. Still, I was undeterred. Consoling from my player coach and Sharapova herself—well, the virtual reality edition—certainly helped.
High-sailing lob return attempts, which had me trying to bat the ball down with an overhead smash, were next. Again ... I made contact, but my returns didn't go anywhere within the white lines and were way out-of-bounds. The CGI-produced Sharapova explained to me that lob shots can be some of the hardest to return back over the net with accuracy, and to keep at it.
As I anticipated and was about to find out firsthand, the You vs. Maria Sharapova virtual reality experience all leads up to trying to return a serve from the winner of five Grand Slam titles.
"Alright, enough warming up ... let's see if you can handle my serve," Sharapova says.
Translation: Play time is over. Sharapova sent three serves my way and I swung my racket and failed to make contact on any of them.
"Good try. Breaking serve is tough," Sharapova said after my second attempt.
Each serve incrementally increased in speed, the last of which simulated what it would look and feel like trying to return a 100-mph serve from a tennis champion. I swung as hard as I could trying to connect, but all I got was hot air. Fans passing by could see my matchup on an outside monitor. The entire You vs. Maria Sharapova experience ran over 3 minutes, with Sharapova thanking me for the competition—or lack thereof.
When I removed the Vive headset, sweat had beaded up on my forehead. What an awesome experience. If the virtual reality experience of going head-to-head with a tennis champ was so difficult, I can only imagine what it'd be like to go against a Sharapova or the world's No. 1 players, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, in real life.
The virtual reality experience was about as real as it gets. I was totally immersed and on the practice court with Sharapova from the moment I donned my headset. I was there. That's exactly what Reel FX, the Dallas, Texas-based visual effects company, was going for when it concocted the You vs. Maria Sharapova virtual reality experience.
"If you make contact with that ball, even if you don't quite get it right, it's a rush. It's an emotional rush. That's what all this touches on," Stephen Hess, lead developer at Reel FX, explained to Tech Times. "When you're there, you're looking around and feel real. You feel like this thing is happening. You hit the ball, the controller vibrates. It's all an emotional experience."
Everything from the virtual reality headset choice to the build-up of trying to handle a serve from Sharapova was carefully calculated by the company for this experience.
"In this day and age, there a lot of goggles that are fairly close in technical prowess, but one thing the Vive gives you that's spectacular is it's meant for you to move around," Hess said. "It's a buzzword we use so much, but immersion. All the goggles are extremely immersive and you add them moving around and it's a quantam leap. It's really amazing."
Aside from the headset and controller, the virtual reality experience didn't require much hardware other than a high-powered PC and high-end graphics card to handle the CGI software. The experience also uses 3D lighthouses, which look like small, wireless speakers and are stationed to create the sensored 3D field of space. In other words, if one sets the two lighthouses 20 feet apart, then the space between them is your 3D field of space.
"You can turn your living room into this playable space," Hess said. "With the lighthouses you're meant to move around in this 3D space, so as you move, it moves with you."
In addition to footage being videotaped, Sharapova had all of her movements motion-captured in an "all-day affair" on a Los Angeles practice court last month.
"She had a tennis ball, we had a little court, it was all her motion. Everything you see is her. Nothing was added," Hess said. "When you face that last serve from her, it's coming through at such an amazing speed, so we wanted to ramp it up and wanted you to get comfortable. So, we had her do some easy ground strokes, some volleys, a lob and then at the end—once you get a little comfortable—she gives you three serves. The first is a little light, the next is a little more and the last one with all she's got."
Another draw of trying out the virtual reality experience at the US Open is the Vive headset hasn't even hit retail, so any fan that participates in the experience is essentially getting a sneak preview. With the recent explosion of NFL teams and high-powered college football programs investing in virtual reality training and the Washington Wizards, Mystics and Capitals becoming the first teams in the NBA, WNBA and NHL to invest in the technology as well, it's clear that there's an advantage to having it at your disposal regardless of the sport.
"It's bi-directional and what I mean by that is not only can an athlete be here and practice these moves, but he or she can also analyze these moves," Hess said. "You can go back afterwards and have the motion showing the path of a swing and analyze that with your coach. You can even watch progress over time. It's infinite possibilities for both training and also for feedback, learning and improving."
US Open ticket holders can wait in line for the VR experience with Sharapova anytime during the tournament, which ends Sept. 13.