William Hill opts for Google Cardboard in VR experience aimed at reinvigorating sports betting

William Hill has created a virtual reality (VR)-based live sports experience using Google Cardboard as it looks to revolutionise live sports gambling and widen its customer base.

The bookmaker has collaborated with production studio Unit9 to fuse GPS race track data with VR technology to create an immersive, 3D horse race in which customers can experience a race as a jockey.

Currently a prototype, William Hill plans to run extensive trials before moving to large scale rollout, but should it be a success then it will extend the gaming experience to other sports.

The 'Get in the Race' VR initiative is the latest to come out of WiIliam Hill's tech Lab in Shoredtich, and forms part of its ongoing strategy to use emerging technologies to enhance the historically "dry" betting process.

Crispin Nieboer, William Hill's director of corporate development and innovation, told The Drum: “This is all part of our plan to enhance what we call the thrill of the ride. Most people in betting don’t do much for the customer in between placing a bet and finding out about it, so we think this is a step in the right direction.

"People tend to see bookie shop – did you win or not – it comes down to that. That's the opposite of say a Las Vegas [betting] experience, which is all about an entertaining experience that is also about winning. So that is what we are gearing towards."

WIlliam Hill worked with Unit 9 on the project 

The current prototype uses data from a past race - the 18.10 race on 18 February 2015 on the all weather track at Kempton Park. It uses real data collected with GPS trackers placed on the horses, to recreate the race in a 3D virtual reality engine.

Once past the prototype trial phases, William Hill will consider using live race track data so people who have placed bets can experience the race their own horse is having.

"The trials will help us decide whether to take it mass market, and will also inform as to how. For example we could create asn installation which could go in our stores - someone could once there put on a headset and immediately be immersed in the environment. Or we could provide it just through mobile with Google Cardboard. We will need to decide if we should allow people to bet in it or whether it should just be the experience once you have already placed your bet on mobile or online.There is a bunch of stuff we could do with it," added Nieboer.

The companies opted for Google's VR product Cardboard over Facebook's Oculus Rift deeming the latter far too expensive to be considered for any prototype which has legs to be extended to a mass market product.

The VR headset has been shaped like a jockey helmet, and features a 'head up display'’, which users can activate when looking down at their horse, which displays its heart rate, stride length, distance remaining and race position. Once the headset is on customers will sit astride a polygraphic horse installation, to better enjoy their chosen jockey’s view.

Using the latest GPS technology and a databank of tracks, horses and jockeys, the system recreates the races real time in a 360 virtual, game-like, environment that puts you in the “saddle”. Customers will only need a smartphone and Google Cardboard device, provided by William Hill, to experience it.

Google Cardboard has more potential for brands such as William Hill than its rival - Facebook-owned Oculus Rift - due to the latter's steep entry price, according to Nieboer.

"The chief potential for Google Cardboard is that it costs only £8. Once you have it and have downloaded a few apps it is transformational – is it like what you can do with your iPhone – but you can do it with two bits of plastic in a bit of cardboard. I’m less of a believer in Oculus Rift because the entry price is so large," he added.

Although VR has been of interest to brands for some time, it is yet to prove its value as revenue generator and mass market product. However, William Hill has set its sights on it as an area which could cater to both these things. "In gaming and betting people didn’t believe the surge in mobile betting would come and as a result, when it did a lot of people missed the boat.

"There have been four or five big disruptions in this industry - gambling going online was one stage – then peer-to-peer competitors like Betfair came along, then online poker, then in-play, then we had mobile and social – and this is the same now with VR. It is very early days but the reason we are doing this and here in Shoreditch with the innovation team and labs is to ensure we are exploring these things," he added.

Meanwhile, Unit9 creative director Henry Cowley said the project is indicative of an increasing trend towards brands requesting product-focused solutions rather than ad campaigns to help them solve business needs.

"It is easy to spend a lot of money in VR especially if high end, but this is what is smart about the William Hill approach – we have kept it very agile and it is a minimum viable product so expenditure has not been that great.

"This has the potential to be full blown product and to help contribute to the bottom line. It is great for us to be able to work with them on what is not a new campaign but a product.

"Driven by emerging and disruptive tech. VR is an important trend and there are a lot of brands looking at it. It will shift the needle in the long term – we are not sure quite how yet, but it will. So this is a great way for William Hill to get in and start to look at how it will shift its business model," he added.

The companies will demonstrate the game to attendees of Digital Shoreditch later today.

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