Cosm: Just like being there

Tech will give fans an in-house-like immersive experience — without long lines.

By Bret McCormick
Cosm hosted an Olympics watch party from the Tokyo Games for the USOPC as a test case.Courtesy of Cosm

About a hundred U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee supporters, donors and Olympic medalists gathered in Salt Lake City last month for a Tokyo Olympics watch party at the research and development headquarters of Cosm. The gathering was the first time anyone outside the immersive experience company had watched live sports on Cosm’s 8K LED dome, which measures 66 feet wide by 50 feet high.

 

Paul Florence, USOPC senior vice president of strategy and operations, got an advance taste of the Cosm experience before the watch party. He told the attendees, “You’re going to feel everything about the Olympic experience, except for the humidity.”

Sports were the driving force behind the creation of the months-old company. Cosm’s acquisition of the world’s leading planetarium company, a technology stack capable of working with large scale content feeders, and extensive sports broadcast production expertise, including in augmented and virtual reality, along with industry relationships, put the new company in a unique position to present immersive experiences.

“You can take the best of this VR headset world, strip away the headset requirements and add other fans,” said Devin Poolman, Cosm chief product and technology officer. “What we’ve seen is the tremendous promise of virtual reality and augmented reality, but to be able to do it in a setting with multiple people is truly transformative.”

Cosm ingests video content — up to 20 video feeds at once from almost any high-resolution source — into its software, then feeds enhanced video into the huge and perforated LED display — 10 times sharper than the projectors used in most planetariums. Dozens of speakers placed behind the screen enhance immersion.

Cosm facilities could host watch parties for foreign fan groups, or democratize events with ticket scarcity, like the World Cup or the Olympics. And with its AR/VR and interactive capabilities, President and CEO Jeb Terry envisions the company playing a big role in esports and sports betting. But the company needs to first build more facilities like the one in Salt Lake City. Terry said a location for the initial public-facing venue will be announced before the end of the year.

“It is absolutely immersive,” Florence said. “What really comes through is the energy of being at the Games, that energy and the buzz that goes with being in the venue. You feel like you’re in the venue in a way you just don’t get with TV.”

Cosm can create a world of augmented and virtual reality with a number of fans together in the same room.Courtesy of Cosm

Roll-up

Cosm, backed by billionaire Stephen Winn’s Mirasol Capital, purchased two companies, Evans & Sutherland and Spitz, that create complete domed theaters, including immersive hardware, software and the physical structures, for approximately $14.5 million in early 2020, according to SEC filings. Cosm also acquired LiveLike VR for an undisclosed amount then rebranded it Cosm Immersive. It works with teams, leagues and broadcasters to distribute live VR events, and built NBC’s virtual reality app for Tokyo.

Cosm’s revenue streams include the historical lines of their business — Evans & Sutherland and Spitz have 500 attractions in operation globally — as well as a robust business-to-business software operation. The immersive sports viewing venues will lean on traditional ticket and concessions sales. Terry said Cosm’s experiences are meant to be co-programmed or shoulder-programmed around live action, not cannibalize events.

Putting a Cosm experience together requires a complicated set of fundamentals. A huge, curved screen is essential, as is driving an LED display of immense size and resolution and being able to process various types of high-quality, low-latency video and produce interactivity all in real time.

While the screen at the Cosm facility in Utah is 66 by 50 feet, Poolman said the company is developing experiences that will be greater than 100 feet across, with real-time capabilities. The significant screen real estate leaves room for additional content on the periphery, like sports betting lines, stats or fantasy scoring and the company’s technology can make content interactive for the audience.

Partnerships matter

The complexity presents challenges. For starters, Cosm’s muscular internet connection requirements and unwieldiness mean that at least in the near-term it will be focused on permanent installations. Florence said the USOPC initially wanted to hold a Cosm watch party at the Los Angeles Coliseum, but it proved infeasible. The company didn’t say how much each facility costs but given the size of the buildings and the considerable technology involved, stand-alone Cosm builds won’t be cheap.

President and CEO Jeb Terry thinks Cosm will play a role in esports and betting.Courtesy of Cosm

Cosm shines most with fully immersive, spherical 8K video. It needs that level of content to reach its full potential, though availability of that kind of video should become less of an issue as rights holders continue to experiment with different broadcast views, camera angles, and technology advances. That means partnerships with rights holders will be critical so that Cosm can access their most interesting, cutting-edge feeds and not just on-demand YouTube video or regular broadcast streams.

Dan Shevchik, Sports Media Advisors partner and senior vice president, wondered if fans would attend Cosm events for the immersive experience or the actual NBA, NFL or Olympics content on the screen. And what would make them come back?

“Sounds like a little bit of both,” Shevchik said. “But having the Tier 1 content certainly helps.”

It’s not clear how any deal between Cosm and rightsholders would be structured. Cosm also declined to divulge whether it’s in negotiations with any broadcasters, teams, leagues or events for rights to their content.

Most of Cosm’s 200 employees are based in Salt Lake City and focused on technology, but Terry, a former NFL offensive lineman and Fox Sports executive, is one of about 30 working in the sports and entertainment group in L.A. About a dozen employees bring sports broadcasting experience and contacts to the new company.

“Property and media companies, relationships with those are likely to be important,” said Shevchik, especially involvement in capturing content with, and for, the rights holders as it might do with Cosm Immersive.

Snowballing technological advances in the coming years will address some of Cosm’s potential hurdles. And after two years of work those don’t feel so impassable. The company has proof of the concept, the USOPC watch party, to take to the market. Cosm is not an official USOPC partner, but Florence was sufficiently impressed to line up more immersive watch parties for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, when it’s again unlikely that foreign fans will attend.

<> <>“There are a lot of steps to get it done and part of it was daunting,” said Terry, “but we’ve been able to start doing that and chipping away. This Olympics watch party showcases the reveal of sorts of what we’ve been up to.”

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