The new Premier League season starts on August 13th. So what will Sky Sports offer to customers that it didn't last season? We took a trip to Sky HQ to find out.
Virtual reality app
In September, Sky will launch its first virtual reality app. And unlike its previous VR experiments, it won't only be available on smartphones. "It will roll out on all platforms," confirmed Richard Nockles, creative director of Sky VR Studios. That means "proper" VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, as well as smartphone apps that can be viewed with a make-it-yourself Google Cardboard headset.
Nockles also confirmed Sky was making a short film in VR starring David Beckham. It will be out at the end of August.
Along with the huge possibilities, virtual reality poses plenty of problems for broadcasters, because it's such a new technology. "We're very much focussed on experimentation," Nockles said. "It's a new genre, we're trying to set a standard for how to do things. Obviously Sky being Sky, they're very keen on innovation."
Sky is taking a two-pronged approach, dealing with live VR experiences and post-VR very differently. But, Nockles stressed, narrative is key.
"We'll be following athletes as they prepare for their big events," he said. "It almost takes on a documentary feel. Then we get to the big day and you're right there in the action with them."
Sounds like a whole new level of immersion, combining cutting-edge technology and engrossing storytelling.
He also confirmed Sky would work with other companies to produce virtual reality content. "It's all about partnerships," he said, "and aggregating the best content from around the world."
We went eyes-on with some virtual reality films, and were impressed with what we saw. Footage of Leicester City celebrating their Premier League win allowed you to turn around and take in the cheering crowd, just like the players would. And while a boxing demo featuring Anthony Joshua didn't quite drop us into the ring – thankfully – it did go some way to recreating the atmosphere of a boxing match.
However, it wasn't perfect. There were occasional glitches, like the lines of an object or person not meeting up. And viewed on a smartphone screen, the image was a little grainy, and nowhere near as sharp as it could be. But it's exciting times ahead for sports fans, especially once Sky's app comes to the big hitters in the headset space like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
New features for Sky Q
A new version of the Sky Q software is coming soon, and it'll add more features for sports fans.
The Sky Q sports homepage (which arrived as part of the recent V2 update) will have selected highlights ready to view. So if you come into a game halfway through, you can see what you've missed. These will be presented with the option of split screen functionality, meaning you can watch the match and highlights at the same time in separate windows.
It will also serve up plenty of statistics on the game as part of the Match Facts feature.
The update will arrive at some point during the 2016/17 Premier League season. While there's no set date, it's expected to be towards the start of it. Indeed, the team is already working on the next version, V4, though Sky wouldn't reveal what that will include.
4K is obviously Sky's big push for the start of the season, and from our demo, it looks very impressive. There are still some kinks to be ironed out, like a horizontal line that appeared on-screen during the graphics segments of coverage. But Sky assured us those will be eliminated.
When you select the Ultra HD (another name for 4K) option in the Sky Q menu, it will walk you through how to set up your TV for 4K viewing. Though remember you will need a 4K-compatible TV to see the benefit of the improved picture quality. If you didn't buy yours in the last couple of years, chances are it's not 4K.
Steve Smith, director of Sky Sports Productions, also confirmed the Sky Sports archive will be upscaled to 4K. Support for HDR (high dynamic range – a technology that shows a greater range of light making for a more striking image with more depth) is also on the roadmap. But we won't see it until the technology standards have been ratified.
An upgraded Sky Sports Football Score Centre
The Sky Sports Football Score Centre app is also getting upgraded. It'll have a new layout and new UI, and will be more focussed on videos.
The big news is that non-Sky Sports subscribers will be able to watch match highlights without paying anything. Though they will have to set up a Sky ID, which is free to do. They'll also have to put up with adverts, which subscribers won't. And they won't be able to access the highlights until 10pm on match days, whereas subscribers will get them earlier.
Also for the first time, non-subscribers will have access to other extras like pre-match interviews and talking heads. (Of course, Sky Sports subscribers get these as standard.) Non-subscribers are faced with a padlock symbol when they try to access subscriber-only content.
To use the app, just sign in, pick a team and you'll be served up all relevant news and videos. Videos are separated into three categories: My Videos (featuring those relating to your team), News List (a curated selection of the hottest news) and Trending (what's popular with users at the moment).
The Android version will also have picture-in-picture, which drops a video window over the app's user interface. That way, you can watch highlights while still navigating within the app.