AWS teams up with MLSE for SportsX innovation program, building on augmented reality pilots

MLSE and AWS demonstrated the further extension of a partnership they announced last year, to provide new types of mixed and augmented reality capabilities around basketball and hockey, with further capabilities for these as well as the other sports that make up the MLSE empire on the way.

Christian Magsisi and Humza Teherany of MLSE, and Eric Gales of AWS Canada

In March 2022, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment [MLSE] and Amazon Web Services [AWS] announced a new partnership designed to create new fan experiences for the six sports properties that make up MLSE. This week, they announced the first fruits of that partnership, which is termed SportsX. The most advanced is a pair of augmented reality goggles for basketball viewership. A more limited set of goggles for hockey was also introduced.

These types of concepts and tools are not in themselves new. The NBA Hall of Fame has similar types of glasses that MLSE and AWS just unveiled. The difference in the level of technology between these older glasses and the brand new ones is significant, however.

“We are aware of the glasses the NBA Hall of Fame has, but these were designed at a time when key concepts in virtual reality and augmented reality were nowhere close to what can be done today,” said Humza Teherany, Chief Technology & Digital Officer, MLSE. “The AI and machine learning in these is far superior to earlier models.”

The extended collaboration with AWS through SportsX takes the utilization of the technology to a new level, Teherany said. The two basketball immersive experiences use different headsets to provide either an an-court experience, with virtual players running around the headset wearer, or from a courtside experience. The demo was held for press in the old Raptors practice  facility within Maple Leaf Gardens underneath an old Toronto Huskies banner, the team that competed in the forerunner of the NBA in 1946-1947 for one year before folding. Like the original Huskies, the virtual players were all white!

To enable faster edge computing, the system uses an AWS Outpost that has been
installed near Scotiabank Arena, making it unnecessary to send data back to the AWS region, and reducing latency.

At this stage of development, the hockey virtual reality tools are more limited in their scope. The for coaches to run set design players with the virtual players is not there today, but it will be, for example.

While the basketball tools do not require an actual basketball game to be on in order to make use of them, the hockey glasses do, which is whey the event was held during the Leafs-Islanders game at the ACC. The hockey glasses use an overlay that allows the viewer to lock onto any player on the ice with a laser, click on the player, and use that to bring up more supporting data about the player as well as graphics like heat maps that use advanced statistical tools. The actual data comes from NHL Edge – the League’s Puck and Player tracking technology system, which has been deployed in all 32 NHL arenas and is used in all NHL games.Unlike the basketball headsets, the hockey one could be sold to consumers for home use.

Teherany stressed that many areas remain where the partnership with AWS could be extended, to bring in new mixed reality functionality.

“We see this as filling all kinds of new roles for our teams and their fans,” he said. “That’s a key reason why at MLSE we have approximately 30 people ourselves working on these technical topics.”

How much of this will be applicable to the AWS channel audience, at least in the near future? Not so much, but there is long term potential down the road.

“Our channel partners today will have limited opportunities to monetize this,” said Eric Gales, country manager at AWS Canada. “As the partnership develops further, and as the uses to which the technology can be put expand, we think this will change. These are more than just consumer entertainment devices. They could be used for things like assisting coaches or to make statistical analysts more efficient in their work. Down the line, we are confident that we will see real opportunities for partners coming out of this.”