SAN FRANCISCO — Microsoft’s big splash into the NFL with its Surface tablet has been a little bumpy. Broadcasters kept calling it an iPad. It was erroneously blamed for a meltdown during the AFC Championship (the problem was really a network connectivity issue).
If you do a web search for “Surface NFL,” you’ll find numerous GIFs of players slamming the tablet to the ground in frustration.
But Microsoft isn’t letting any of that get in the way of plans to further revolutionize how fans and players experience the country’s most popular sport. As part of this week’s Super Bowl extravaganza, the company used its partnership with the NFL to show off a splashy future of football concept with games recreated on a coffee table and life-size players beamed into your living room.
Surface: Only the Beginning
The NFL assembled a panel with Hall of Famer Joe Montana, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and league officials to chat about how technology would change the fan experience. Along with its work with Surface, Microsoft also has a dedicated Xbox One app that brings real-time stats to viewers. The overall theme of both the panel and other Super Bowl activities is how technological changes could vastly change the experience of football.
The discussion, moderated by Fox analyst Erin Andrews, analyzed how the Surface had changed the capabilities for players and what fans could expect as Microsoft and other partners bring more technological innovation to the game.
Brees, a 15-year veteran, recounted how players had to flip through still images stapled together in order to get a sense of how their team and the opponent were performing.
“Now we walk to the sidelines and it’s seamless. Here’s every single play that took place in the game,” he said.
The catchy video and repeated praise of the Surface by former players made for an endorsement session that would make any Microsoft investor happy. Oakland Raiders General Manager Reggie McKenzie made sure to call out the company by name when describing how coaches and team scouts could more quickly analyze player data.
“It’s all about the real-time capabilities and with all the advantages that Microsoft has brought in, it’s going to continue to get better,” he said.
Andrews reiterated that contrary to the stereotype that younger people are the ones most often drawn to new technology, the Surface tablets have universal appeal.
“I’m blown away by how many of these old-school coaches love them,” she said.
Expanded Role for Tech
Microsoft clearly got the most prominent play this week as part of the company’s partnership with the league. Expect to see the Surface logo prominently during the game on Sunday when players head off to the sidelines. The sense among players is they now want more from it — in particular additional data analysis and videos of previous plays.
Mike Nichols, the corporate vice president of marketing and CMO for Xbox, said the issue is less with the technology and how the NFL must decide which innovations it wants to allow.
“The technology it no longer a barrier. It’s now a competitive issue,” he said. “It will go to the [NFL] competition committee. The testing has been done over the last year and that capability has now been made possible.”
The most game-changing part of the peek into the future is the Microsoft HoloLens. It’s one of many products like the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear competing to become the future of how computing changes to become more interactive and integrated with other senses. And the key win for Microsoft is that it gets to portray itself as a leader in an emerging field.
Montana and Brees both indicated that the home viewership experience has vast potential to change as virtual and augmented reality become more capable. Montana said cameras in helmets that give a view of the field as experienced by players could elevate the sport off the flat plane of television.
“There’s just no experience like it. If you could have a fan experience that, they’d all want to play the game,” he said.
But how technology would continue to change the NFL got a lot more attention than just one panel discussion. It was everywhere in downtown San Francisco. Kiosks lined Market Street that played highlights of previous Super Bowls and offered extra features when paired with a smartphone app.
The Super Bowl City space contains a 15-foot-tall video wall that includes interactive games and social media mentions, which was built with the assistance of software company SAP. The event space near the Embarcadero and the NFL Experience inside the Moscone Center were turned into tech playgrounds this week, all befitting of the region hosting the Super Bowl.
While it still could be a while before players invade your living room, there was plenty of confidence that this would be with us one day.
Brian Rolapp, the executive vice president of media for the NFL, said that it would be “not if, but when” in relation to the science fiction-style viewing experience. It appears placing the Super Bowl in the technology-rich San Francisco Bay Area could serve as the right launching pad for the future.