technologyTo Immerse: The Growing Presence of Virtual Reality in Surfing 

-Words by Kim Feldmann, images by Anthony Walsh/GoPro, Ling-Ni Li & film by Anthony Walsh/GoPro
Frame grab from a 360 virtual reality film by surfer anthony walsh surfing in tahiti

Virtual reality is a new reality in surfing and, apparently, it is here to stay. The potential is too great: not only can VR experiences teach basic and advanced surfing skills with high levels of ecological validity, but they also provide inexperienced surfers with the opportunity to enjoy surfing from an expert’s viewpoint, all the while allowing for the repeated replication of real-world situations and conditions – which could prove a game-changer in training. Not to mention that, considering how portable and relatively affordable today’s VR devices are, users can practise anytime, anywhere. It is both scary and exciting to think we might not depend on swells or wind conditions to keep improving.

Indeed, so rich are the possibilities that, over the last decade or so, several studies have looked at the benefits of VR applications in sport, with one particular study indicating that, besides skill development, VR technology could also impact when and how individuals take part in leisure sports. These findings hinted to the opportunity of using VR to create authentic and meaningful education, as well as different and lucrative ways to promote sports. However, the lack of theory-grounded VR studies centred on user experiences has prevented researchers from learning more about people’s acceptance to the technology and consumer behaviours.

“VR technology may provide users with a more realistic and immersive way to familiarise themselves with surfing and the surfing environment, and this may potentially increase their motivation to take up the sport as well as reduce risk of injury,” says Chia-Pin Yu, co-author of a study published last December which investigates whether surfers (and potential surfers) accept simulated surfing experiences.Yu and his colleague, Ling-Ni Li, both avid surfers, set out to measure how users’ perceptions and actions are influenced in a VR surfing scenario, with the aim to develop a theoretical framework to better understand VR adoption in leisure and tourism, more specifically in surfing.

For that, Yu and Li made use of the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) – a model that describes how technologies are adopted based on their perceived usefulness (whether the user finds the technology works efficiently) and ease of use(the degree of difficulty using the technology). Since hedonic factors play a role in VR experiences, the authors also employed elements of flow theory – a concept founded on the idea that a mental state of utter concentration leads to excitement and fulfilment, often used when researching people's interactions with e-learning and mobile devices. Combining the TAM and flow theory was important in this case because even though users can acquire some essential surfing skills in VR, their willingness to adopt the technology is directly related to how useful they think it is and how easy to use it is, as well as whether or not it brings them pleasure.

student participating in a virtual reality study about surfing

A total of 251 people (110 men and 141 women), most of whom had neither surfing experience (n=167) nor VR experience (n=176), participated in thirty-minute sessions conducted in a university laboratory between March and April 2017. Using a HTC Vive head-mounted display (HMD), participants watched two different VR experiences, shown back-to-back and lasting 9 minutes in total. The first video, recorded by professional surfer Kyle Thiermann, aimed at giving participants a basic understanding of surfing by observing waves and watching surfing motions (paddling, chasing waves, and popping up) first from the shoreline, then from the sea. The second video, recorded by professional surfers Anthony Walsh and Matahi Droll, consisted of an advanced, real-world surfing experience where participants watched surfers ride barrelling waves up to 5 metres.

After the VR session, participants were invited to answer a questionnaire directed at capturing the dimensions of the TAM and flow theory. Questions were answered on a Likert-type scale, from 1 (strongly agree) to 7 (strongly disagree). Regarding the TAM, the authors were interested in finding out the participants’ perceived usefulness of VR, perceived ease of using VR, attitude toward using VR, and behavioural intentions to use VR for virtual surfing. Meanwhile, measurements of flow theory focused on participants’ perceived playfulness, telepresence, and focused attention. In addition, the authors also collected qualitative data by asking participants how they felt about the VR surfing experience in general.

As with any study, there were limitations. The two main points raised by participants were that the resolution of the 360-degree videos shown in the HMD could be higher, and that the immersive experience of surfing – and consequently the subsequent learning effects – could be improved by optimising the VR system to project sensory experiences beyond visual and sound effects, like the warmth of the sun and the smell of the ocean. The first issue can easily be remedied with new 4K technologies (which weren’t available at the time of the study), whilst the latter could be replicated with light panels and essential oil diffusers.

Besides the drawbacks pointed out by the participants, Yu and his colleagues also found that the cost of VR content production present challenges. “The cost of a VR device is much lower now, but not everyone can afford it,” highlights Yu. “However, the issue of cost shouldn’t be a problem in the near future, due to advances in hardware technology. So the most pertinent issue is the fact that there is limited VR surfing content on the market”

Ultimately, however, the results confirmed the hypothesis that both hedonic factors (experiencing a flow state) and utilitarian aspects (perceived usefulness and ease of use) play a crucial role in the adoption of VR for virtual surfing. As for the participants’ feelings toward VR surfing, they mentioned that the simulated experience generated more motivation to surf than regular 2D videos, and that it has the potential to help beginners understand surfing more thoroughly, which could improve the effectiveness of surf coaching in the real world.

“Our findings suggest that participants generally agreed that the application of VR to surfing was useful,” emphasises Yu. “[This means] the surfing industry can use VR to provide beginners with virtual experiences to increase their motivation to surf and learn to surf efficiently, while more advanced surfers might benefit from virtual experiences during the off-season and when they are unable to access the physical ocean. On top of that, VR technology offers surfing industry managers a novel way to promote surfing.”

When asked how he sees the relationship between VR and surfing growing in the future, Yu says he is very optimistic. “Our next generation is getting used to new technology, and outdoor recreational activities – such as surfing, kayaking, climbing, etc. – should deliver these experiences in a new way,” he says. “For now, there’s the need to produce more high-quality VR surfing content to attract more attention from the public and hopefully create a new business model in connecting with the virtual and real world.”