It just got real

Coaches like Bret Bielema and Bill Belichick are getting on the virtual-reality wave

Shawnee Baughman/Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

A quarterback surveys the defense as he approaches his offensive line. He looks to his left and sees one of the cornerbacks cheating, as if he’s going to blitz. The quarterback glances to his right and motions his tight end across to cover for the encroaching defender. The tight end passes through the quarterback’s peripheral vision from right to left, moving out of view as he runs behind the quarterback. The quarterback scans the defense one more time, runs through the cadence and the ball is snapped.

It might seem like practice, but it’s not. It all takes place in a virtual-reality headset.

The future is here, and it comes through goggles.

What was once seen as fantasy, virtual-reality technology is quickly entering the sports world, and it’s revolutionizing the way coaches conduct practice and train both young and veteran players. Things that would only have lived in someone’s imagination 20-25 years ago are now becoming realities.

Two men who are working to master the technology are Jeremy Bailenson and Derek Belch from Stanford University. Together, the two developed STriVR Labs, whose client list currently includes NFL teams, college programs and as of late, NBA, NHL and even WNBA organizations.

By redefining how virtual reality is developed and used, STriVR Labs and other companies have brought the technology farther from the virtual world and closer to the real one.

“Virtual reality replaces your senses with ones generated by a computer,” Bailenson said. “So when virtual reality is done well, we measure exactly how the body moves, and we replicate the senses for those movements. … VR is a constant technological system that tracks body movement and updates the sights, sounds and touch based on those movements; you feel like you’re mentally transported into a different place.”

Another term Bailenson used to describe the technology is presence, the illusion of non-mediation — complete immersion in the technology. Developers have managed to make it as though users aren’t even aware they’re using virtual reality, so the brain treats the experience as if it were real.

When people think of virtual reality, more often than not, it is equated to a video game, but it really is about capturing very intense, realistic moments. As far as anyone is concerned – according to Bailenson – virtual reality should be perceptually equivalent to an actual experience.

Users put on a headset and, all of a sudden, are in the passenger seat of a NASCAR car next to Jeff Gordon racing around Indianapolis Motor Speedway, feeling the uncontrollable vibration of the stock car underneath. They hear the crew chief in their ears, as if they were wearing the driver’s headset, and the roar of the engine and thousands of fans. They feel the extreme force pushing them into their seats, hearts left pounding in their chests.

The technology has progressed so far that a comparison to reality is now the expectation, not the hope. That explains why virtual reality is a perfect step forward in the world of athletic training. Because the mind has no way of distinguishing between a real situation and one generated by the technology, it is the ideal means of supplementing work on the field, on the rink, on the court, to further athletes’ skills and knowledge of the game.

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David Shaw is a former Stanford football player who is now the team’s head coach. And as soon as he put on Belch’s virtual reality headset, it wasn’t only that he thought the technology could be beneficial for his program; he wanted it, and he wanted it right then.

“That was it,” said Bailenson. “That was the moment I knew this was something really special.”

The technology is special not just for how popular it’s becoming. Belch and Bailenson have transformed it from something resembling a video game to an extension of the limited on-the-field practice time for college and professional athletes.

Instead of using animated or computer-generated images to simulate game-like situations, STriVR Labs uses real video and each team’s individual players to create customized experiences. Teammates are available at the press of a button. The technology accelerates the transformational learning moments — when a player really moves up to the next level — as Bailenson emphasized.

The technology has found supporters at programs of all sizes.

“I tried the technology on for the first time, and I was just like, ‘Man, this is exactly what I was hoping I would find,’” said Dartmouth College head football coach Buddy Teevens. “It’s functional, adaptable to what our needs might be because it’s real footage; it’s not robotic or animated.

“Derek and Jeremy flew down, filmed a little bit of our stuff at spring practice, showed us what they could do, and it just absolutely blew me away.”

So it’s no surprise that along with Dartmouth, STriVR Labs’ client list includes the Dallas Cowboys, the New England Patriots, the San Francisco 49ers, Auburn University, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Arkansas among others.

What virtual reality brings to the table – especially in STriVR Labs’ case, using actual players and playbooks – is the ability to let athletes practice without stepping on the field. Teams may only be allowed to have four sessions with live tackling and blocking, but with virtual reality, a player can step on the field and practice running routes with a full-padded defender charging their weak side. The supervised virtual reality sessions would be included under students’ countable hours, essentially making them the same as traditional film study under the rules, an NCAA spokesperson said.

But VR sessions give players an immersive experience that goes far beyond sitting in a dark room, watching tape.

“You can sit in a chair and take 20 [repetitions] of practice and walk through plays as if you were on a practice field,” said Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema. “It literally changes the dynamic of trying to teach someone on a learning curve in a short amount of time; it allows you to process and learn the game without actually playing.”

In any given practice, if 100 snaps are taken, it’s safe to assume that the majority of those snaps will be given to the starting quarterback, with the second- and third-stringers potentially getting in a few, as well. But a team may have five or six quarterbacks on its roster, so how are they expected to get any practice? Teams can tape those snaps, implement them in virtual reality video and allow players to take mental reps.

But while the quarterback position seems to be the most logical in choosing how to utilize this technology, what both Bielema and Teevens made very clear was that virtual reality has a value at almost any position.

“You can have a guy view the opposing side of the ball, analyzing his footwork and his steps and techniques against an oncoming rush lineman,” said Teevens. “Or he can try and anticipate his own read or his own cut.

“There is a comfort level acquired, and you understand what’s happening next – seeing that a situation is not advantageous and reworking it into an advantageous opportunity.”

And what’s more advantageous, really, than being able to take practice repetitions against your upcoming opponent’s offense? While coaches can’t incorporate an opponent’s actual film, they can employ the opponent’s offensive strategy by way of their own players as they prepare for a game.

“We might be playing (Texas) A&M,” Bielema said, “and it won’t be A&M bodies actually performing the plays, but we can simulate it as if it were A&M bodies, and all of a sudden our offense is more prepared for that game because they know what to expect.”

There are still skeptics. Teevens himself wasn’t sure about the technology when it was first brought to his attention, but because it was developed by people he had recruited himself when he was a coach at Stanford, and over the years he had built a relationship and a sense of trust and a sense of faith in Belch — and Trent Edwards, another member of the STriVR team and a former college and NFL player — he was willing to entertain the idea.

To say he was left pleasantly surprised would be an understatement.

“I put on the goggles and the headpiece, and it was our video with our players, and I could hear the audio and the plays being called,” he said. “When the ball was snapped, I literally moved to catch the ball, and there was only me and a computer in the room. That’s the thing that blew me away.”

Aside from themselves, these coaches are hoping that the technology and its implementation will also blow away any future prospects who may be drawn to their programs.

The appeal of virtual reality is one thing; it’s become clear that the use of this technology no doubt gives players an advantage over those whose teams have yet to embrace it. Additionally, because it is so new, the fact that only a select few programs have it could give them an edge in recruiting. They would have an opportunity to use technology that is not widespread, but could use something at their own college that is being used prominently at the professional level.

Possibly more importantly, though, is the fact that it has the potential to make the recruiting process much easier by making college campuses seem closer to recruits.

“We’ve got probably one of the most scenic campuses in the league – maybe in the country,“ said Teevens. “So to be able to sit down in a home in Texas or Washington, and say, ‘Hey this is Dartmouth Night, which is similar to homecoming’ – we will film that this year and I can carry it on a plane and put the headset on the guy and say, ‘Welcome to Hanover, New Hampshire.’”

And for the athletes who don’t think playing professionally is in their future, virtual reality can help their recruitment, as well. For a quarterback in Phoenix who wants to be a doctor, virtual reality can take him into the lab and show him the research being done and the facilities in which it’s done, going far beyond athletics.

Players will be able to step into teams’ locker rooms and see what’s going on in a pregame situation, or walk into the weight room and see a training session without leaving their living rooms. It gives coaches a real opportunity to insert a prospect into their program and their school, so he can take off the headset and say, “Yeah, I can see myself doing that,” without ever stepping on a plane.

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As STriVR continues to enhance its technology in the realm of athletes and coaches, another company, Next Galaxy, is working on a different side of virtual reality: fan engagement.

“Using virtual reality, you go from a 2D world to a 3D world – a world in which you are completely immersed,” said Akim Millington, a former New Orleans Saints lineman and Next Galaxy’s Director of Virtual Reality Sports and Entertainment.

“And fans want to be immersed. They want to go, as close to being a part of the team as possible and to see what we see and feel what we feel. This is a way to fully infiltrate the locker room; it’s as if they are breaking the huddle.”

Similar to how STriVR tapes practices from a variety of different angles in order to give a real-time perspective of the plays, companies like Next Galaxy can use different angles to give fans a new way to experience their sport of choice, whether it’s from the field, from the owner’s box or from 30 rows up on the 50-yard line — seats that could cost more than certain people may ever be willing to pay for entry.

“For fans that are not able to get into the game, they can now get that game-day experience no matter where they are,” said Next Galaxy CEO Mary Spio. “And a lot of teams have fans from all over the world.”

Potential recruits may never again have to travel to visit the school of their dreams, and it seems as though fans may never again have to travel to see their favorite teams play. And as Spio pointed out, many popular sports organizations – she used the University of Kentucky’s basketball program as an example – have limited ticket availability, regardless of where in the world their fans are.

When looking at the future of this technology realistically, though, it doesn’t seem as if the experts — Spio, Belch or Bailenson alike — believe that the virtual reality world will ever really eclipse the experience of sitting at the 50-yard line at Gillette Stadium or center ice at Madison Square Garden. And judging by the fact that both Next Galaxy and STriVR Labs are in talks with various other sports teams across the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB, it is safe to assume that those organizations don’t fear what this technology may do to attendance or ticket sales, but instead welcome its ability to supplement the real life experience.

When tickets aren’t at fans’ disposal, a headset and a cell phone at least, and extensive technology at most, can give them the same sense as if they were sitting center court at Rupp Arena.

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Tickets aren’t the only things that are both limited and pricey, though. The technology used by both STriVR and Next Galaxy, as is, isn’t available to the general consumer base. Because of the price of the technology, as well as its hyper-specificity – the fact that it is completely tailored to the players on each team – virtual reality is a high-end product that comes at significant expense.

But experts say this won’t always be the case. And that time might be coming even sooner than anyone would think – or hope.

“Our timeline isn’t as long as you might think,” said Belch. “Something a little more generic, something that isn’t as customizable and specific to the team, for high schoolers, for lower-level programs, will hopefully be available by the end of the year.”

“We have a really, really good roadmap for when we’re gong to create all of these generic, less expensive versions of what we do because we know how valuable they can be.”

Unfortunately, the ability to use this technology doesn’t hinge only on the quality of the program. It also relies heavily on the vehicle by which the program is carried: the headset. The equipment is not cheap, and it’s most likely not built into most programs’ budgets (other than professional teams and the big college teams). But again, taking just one step down from the quality of the technology present in those big-time organizations, and the world of virtual reality can be at anyone’s fingertips.

“This technology is still at its infancy,” Spio said. “But right now, we’re working with the Google VR headset that starts from anywhere between $10 and $15; all you need is a smartphone. … We’re also working really closely with VR1, which is only $99, and it’s an incredible VR experience. We’re ushering in this new phase of bringing sports to the VR arena for everyone.”

Next Galaxy also recently signed an exclusive, multi-year agreement with Great American Rivalry, which provides high school sports games, as well as related media. Next Galaxy will be broadcasting the high school games that Great American Rivalry would broadcast – 286 game possibilities – via their virtual reality platform, further illustrating their desire to make the technology accessible to those at all levels, and even in all sports.

Right now the technology is mostly targeted at football programs, but don’t expect it to stay that way.

“As of now, we’re in conversations, beginning work, with two MLB franchises, one hockey franchise, basketball – we’re talking to a number of teams, and we’re starting an academic project with the Stanford basketball team,” said Bailenson.

“We’re also talking to a number of NBA teams, and actually, [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver recently visited us.”

So if you’re not a football player, don’t fret. At some point in the near future, athletes from all walks of life will be able to utilize and take advantage of the technological revolution at hand. And while it’s true that virtual reality may soon eclipse the technology that’s already out there, the guys at STriVR and the Next Galaxy team have emphasized the fact that while extremely advantageous, virtual reality is and will continue to be merely a supplemental tool.

“I don’t think we’re ever truly going to be able to replicate or replace physical work on a field,” said Belch. “I’d hate to see the time a dad pitches to his kid replaced by headsets. There is no substitute; there is nothing that will ever replace hitting a baseball or the true speed of the game.”

“But that being said, I think we will see, over time, really, really good simulators that come damn near close. The stuff is coming, and it’s going to be here. It’s cool, it’s good, but don’t think it’ll ever replace work.”

Really it’s a matter of maintaining realistic expectations. This technology can’t replace the adrenaline rush a player gets when he throws a game-winning touchdown, or the feelings of awe a fan experiences when he steps into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans for the Super Bowl.

This, however, might just be the next best thing.

“This is a game-changer,” Bielema said.

And Teevens agrees.

“I truly believe that everyone,” he said, “everyone in the country will work towards this.”