The Swedish-born Henrik Lundqvist is widely considered one of the best goalkeepers in today's National Hockey League. He's got plenty of metal to prove it, including a Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL's best netminder, and Olympic gold and silver medals. Though, sadly for fans of his New York Rangers (your writer included), he has yet to lift Lord Stanley's Cup.
This season, Rangers fans are getting closer to "Hank," as he's affectionately nicknamed, than ever before. In fact, they become him. That's thanks to a new virtual reality experience at Madison Square Garden that puts participants in Lundqvist's skates and pads, challenging them to stop shots from the team's top skaters.
The experience, created by VR sports startup STRIVR, uses an HTC Vive virtual reality headset to put players on virtual ice. Motion-sensing joysticks, meanwhile, give players control of Lundqvist's glove in one hand, and blocker in another. (Sadly, the experience doesn't leave you with Lundqvist's remarkable fashion sense.)
Just a few minutes with the game left me convinced that my childhood decision to abandon any aspirations of playing professional hockey was absolutely the right move. The virtual pucks came in hot — NHL slapshots have been recorded at upwards of 100 miles an hour — and while there was no real danger, it still felt absolutely terrifying to be in the line of fire. It was also addicting. I badly wanted to spend more time in the headset to hone my skills and improve on my middling results.
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"Madison Square Garden, as a whole, we're always looking at ways to use technology to enhance fan experiences," says Andrew Lustgarten, executive vice president of corporate development and strategy at The Madison Square Garden Company, which owns the eponymous arena as well as the Rangers, the New York Knicks, and several other properties. Lustgarten says fans' reactions to the goalie simulator has been "really positive."
"We talk to people after they do it, they really enjoy it, people come back and do it again," he says. "There's been a line, but not a terrible line. It's really worked well."
The Rangers virtual reality experience is also just one example of a broader trend as sports arenas look to the emerging field of VR as a source of sideline entertainment for fans. The NFL's New York Jets, for instance, are experimenting with a VR experience that takes fans on the field. (It's also made by STRIVR.) Broadcasters, meanwhile, are flirting with ways to broadcast 360-degree video from games to viewers' VR headsets.
That could be beneficial to the broader virtual reality industry. Several high-priced VR headsets are set to hit store shelves this year. But the companies making them are facing a big challenge: Some potential buyers may remain unconvinced because they haven't had the chance to try the tech yet. Getting first hand experience at a sports arena, however, could make shoppers more willing to open their wallets.