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Turner, Google eye increased VR usage during March Madness basketball tournament

As the 2019 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship kicks off in earnest March 21, AT&T Inc.'s Turner Sports, with an assist from Facebook Inc.'s Oculus Go, is looking to generate more virtual reality viewing from this year's version of March Madness.

Beginning with four games on March 21 as part of an overall 21-contest slate, this marks the fourth consecutive year of enhanced coverage through the NCAA March Madness Live VR app.

Developed by Turner Sports Inc. in partnership with CBS Corp.'s CBS Sports, Intel Corp. and the NCAA, the app can be downloaded to provide courtside and other arena perspectives, plus game commentary from all remaining rounds of the tournament, culminating with the Final Four on April 6 and national championship two days later.

Fans can purchase individual contests for $2.99 or the entire offering for $19.99, as well as format video-on-demand content, including behind-the-scenes access, and coach and player interviews.

The March Madness Live VR app began as a trial with the Samsung Electronics' Gear VR headset during the 2016 event and is now also accessible from Oculus Go, which succeeds Google LLC's Daydream platform from the tournament last year.

Thomas Brennan, senior manager, business operations for NCAA Digital at Turner, declined to comment on subscription totals or transaction trends toward single-game or full-package purchases, though he said the buys have grown annually.

"We've been pleased by the numbers," he said, adding that he anticipates Gear VR will lay in a solid base, and Oculus Go will attract new users.

Consumption levels — time spent watching and the number of sessions — have improved over the course, according to Brennan. He said users toggle between the director's cut, which features via fully produced VR coverage, incorporating multiple courtside cameras, sounds from inside the arena, announcers, graphics and highlights, and the different camera angles users can control.

"Users like to look around. They view the game from courtside or another vantage point, before settling in," he said. "Others prefer the fully produced games, which are more like traditional telecasts."

At the outset, the games will showcase a minimum of four VR views with the total increasing as the rounds proceed. The Final Four and championship games will feature Intel True View integration, delivering 360-degree highlights.

Intel began promoting the VR offering during the First Four telecasts on March 19 and March 20 on truTV (US), as well as across the NCAA March Madness Live digital platform.