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Jewish World Review July 19, 1999 /6 Av 5759

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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The real world is
declared not real enough --
WHITEHALL, OHIO --- The grass is thick and green on the high school football fields in the towns and suburbs around here; soon summer practice will begin, and by September the stands will be filled with enthusiastic fans, staring down at these same fields, cheering and shouting for their favorite hometown teams.

How quaint. How 20th Century.

Because the way people will watch sporting events in the 21st Century, the way people will choose to enjoy the action. . . .

Well, if what happened at the recent Pepsi 400 NASCAR auto race at the Daytona International Speedway in Florida is any indication, the old way of attending sports contests is just about over.

At the Pepsi 400 race, 50 fans arrived at their seats to find contraptions that had been built by Sony. The machines looked like wraparound sunglasses. The fans were instructed to put them on, and to use individual sets of hand-held controls.

At which point they saw the race -- the race that was actually taking place in front of them -- through the glasses, which Sony calls "Glasstron -- a futuristic head-mounted display." The Glasstrons -- which have recently gone on sale to consumers -- are designed to make the viewer feel as if he or she is seeing a 52-inch TV screen from 6 1/2 feet away.

"But it's more than that," said Brian Levine, a Sony spokesman. "When you have the Glasstron glasses on, the feeling is so real, so intense, that you think you're inside of the action. It is much more exciting than watching something the usual way."

And so, at Daytona, the 50 fans who were selected for the Glasstron experiment were able to look toward the racing track -- but they weren't seeing what the other people in the stands were seeing. Instead, as they worked their control panels, they were able to call up live feeds from CBS cameras that were covering the race -- live coverage of the race itself, live shots from cameras mounted inside the cars of top racers -- and thus, while attending the same race as their fellow fans, view something on tiny screens inside their glasses that was completely different from what those fellow fans were viewing.

"With Glasstron," Sony's Levine said, "you're actually seeing the race cars in front of you, the crashes right in front of your face. . . ."

It's the future -- going to sporting events, but not having to deal with the dull, distant views that have always been a part of those events. Think of those high school football games that will begin taking place in the neighborhood stadiums around here in September -- for every thrilling play, there will be long minutes of minimum action, of passes only vaguely seen from many yards away. That, apparently, is what the new technology is endeavoring to render obsolete.

"The product is so new," Levine said, "that all the applications of it are still being worked on. The idea, at sporting events, is to provide people who wear Glasstron a larger-than-life experience right in front of their faces, one where they can change what they see at will."

And if this concept sounds vaguely confusing -- why go to a real sports event if you're going to put on a pair of glasses and not even see the genuine version of the event? -- Levine said it is merely the next step in an evolution.

"Think about when your father started bringing a transistor radio to football games," he said.

A valid point -- when people first brought small radios to ballgames, it seemed odd. Why listen to the same game you're watching?

But it became routine. And as weird as the idea of Glasstron glasses at sports events seems -- remember those old news photos of people in movie theaters staring at the screen through 3-D glasses? -- it's conceivable that it could one day become commonplace.

"If it's a better, more exciting way to see an event, then people will want it," Levine said. "You can have the excitement of being present at a game, sitting with all the fans -- and at the same time have this virtual reality view of the contest, a virtual reality that you control, that is more entertaining than the actual view of the contest."

So is this the future of spectator sports -- going to the games, looking toward the field, but not seeing the slow-paced action? Has it come to this -- is virtual reality considered better than reality?

"I guess it depends on who you ask," Levine said.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1999, Tribune Media Services