Imagine you’re a quarterback. You walk up to the center, take the snap, and the defense descends on you like a pack of ravenous predators. You look to your first two reads. Both wide receivers at the split end positions are closely covered by cornerbacks. You look to your slot receiver — he’s covered. Just as you are about to checkdown to your running back to dump the ball for a small gain, you’re sacked. You get up, but you don’t feel any pain.
That’s because you were never hit. Welcome to the future of American football training: virtual reality.
Several weeks ago, the Minnesota Vikings announced that they were incorporating virtual reality into their quarterback training. “We are constantly looking for opportunities to help our players prepare and improve on the field,” Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said in an official team statement. “This is just another example of the Wilf family’s commitment to helping our team compete for championships.”
While this news might have made fans of opposing NFC North division teams chuckle given the Vikings perennial quarterback woes, it was nevertheless intriguing that a team with a promising second-year coach in Mike Zimmer would decide to incorporate virtual reality into its program at all. And the Vikings aren’t the only team testing the virtual waters.
Recently, the New York Jets, another struggling NFL team, decided to give VR a go, joining the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals in the virtual realm. At the NCAA level, the Stanford, Auburn, Vanderbilt, Dartmouth, Rice and University of Arkansas football programs are also using the system. And, as the technology matures and costs are lowered, VR training will trickle down to high school football teams.
Tech by people
who know the game
STRIVR Labs, the company behind the Vikings’ virtual reality quarterback training system, believes their Oculus Rift-based system will change how teams train and prepare for opponents. STRIVR features a 360-degree camera and audio system that captures all on-field action, allowing the user to relive a play as if they were there. Teams can use it to record immersive for one-on-one drills and team segments, as well as for simulating opponents.
Founded by brothers Derek and Danny Belch, former NFL quarterback Trend Edwards and Jeremy Bailenson, STRIVR Labs grew out of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which has also launched VR projects aimed at enhancing empathy and promoting eco-consciousness in users.
STRIVR Labs stands out in the virtual reality industry: its team isn’t just Silicon Valley technologists. Apart from Bailenson, the company’s founders mostly come from the world of sports, where technology is usually spent on stadiums, physical training, film study systems and some performance data crunching.
“My brother Danny [Belch] is a former football coach and player,” Derek Belch tells Hopes and Fears. “Trent Edwards is a former NFL starting quarterback, and Jeremy is one of the world's experts in virtual reality. We have also added more employees who have either played in the NFL or at the NCAA level.”
Belch says that because virtual reality makes a user feel as though they are right there, it puts athletes on the field in the exact position they would be in a real practice, game or match. When athletes look at practice or game simulations through virtual reality, STRIVR Labs often hears from them, “This is as close to the real thing as possible.”
Now we can take athletes and from anywhere, any time, any place,
and they can port themselves back onto the field or court, and they are practicing almost exactly like they would on the field,”
– Belch explains
Using footage that's captured by a stationary 360-degree camera, the VR system makes a player feel like they are in their own position on the field where they would be standing and what they would see if they were really out there in real life. “And it's almost even better because they aren't really risking injury or over-work. But they are getting an experience that really makes them feel like they are out there running drills or plays. So they are improving and making themselves better.”
While the Vikings are using STRIVR for quarterback training, Belch says that every position group on the field can apply it. “It was born out of the quarterback position and has a great application to quarterback training but through all our filming we quickly realized how well it applies across the field,” he says. “Now, with our teams we are using VR for pretty much every position. We've had players come in by themselves and put it on and take virtual reps. We've seen 1-1 coaching and technique training. We aren't replacing the normal film study that players do — a sideline view or an end zone view. We are adding a new look and new perspective.”
↓ VR training demo
In the field
One of those intrigued by the potential of virtual reality training was Dartmouth College football’s Director of Football Operations Joey McIntyre. After seeing reports in the national media of virtual reality being used by sports teams, McIntyre called Matt Doyle, Director of Football Operations at Stanford, who put him in touch with Derek Belch. Teevens and his coaching staff decided they wanted to see STRIVR for themselves before making a decision.
“They came out, we saw all of it, and we essentially decided to make a decision in 48 hours on going with them or passing for the time being,” McIntyre says. “Coach Teevens saw the value in it, and certainly the existing relationships with Stanford [as a former coach], Matt and Trent Edwards helped out.”
“As far as what it feels like with the headset on, you’re there,” McIntyre says. “To the point where Coach put it on with his suit and Oxford shirt, he went to catch the ball when the center snapped the ball. He reached to the right to catch the ball. It’s as real as anything you’ve seen.”
McIntyre says that Dartmouth intends to use the system in a broad way. While the most obvious application is for quarterback training given that the position requires the reading of and reacting to defenses, Dartmouth plans to use the system for all position groups.
We used it on the offensive line
to see what looks they’re getting from the defense, and we’ve used it on the center’s perspective in covering defenses.”
– McIntyre says.
“We’ve put it on the corner’s perspective when he looks at the quarterback. We’ve seen it on a one-on-one with a cornerback and wide receiver, and they can see where they might have needed an extra step. We’ve used it with safeties and linebackers as well, and a little bit with special teams.”
When used with kickers, virtual reality gives the kicker additional reps to mentally work on body placement and kicking technique. When it comes to punt protection, the “shield guys” can virtually go through all of the different defensive looks, simulating reps that might have been missed on the field.
McIntyre says that STRIVR will also serve as a type of “virtual playbook” for the team’s younger guys. During the preseason, they may only get 10 to 15 reps per practice. But if they want to go back and “redo” the reps, or get even more, they can do so virtually. They can essentially put the headset on and watch the first team (the starters) live and in full speed, which should prove invaluable in accelerating the training.
STRIVR is aiming to be an additional tool rather than a replacement for traditional birds-eye and sideline view training film. In addition to those time honored training methods virtual reality offers a first person perspective that will hopefully increase the players ability to learn and intensify reflexes.
Literally, seeing the game plan
McIntyre also sees virtual reality as integral to game planning. During the preseason or regular season, Dartmouth can simulate looks from its various opponents. The offense, for instance, can virtually experience the defensive “looks” (coverages) typically used by teams like Harvard, University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. Teams typically do this with on-field walk throughs in the days before the game. Virtual reality could alter this strategy.
“This is basically a simulated walk-through,” McIntyre says. “We know that Harvard runs these six blitzes, and we put our first team out there and our scout team will run those blitzes, and we’ll put it in the Harvard folder and when the week comes we can see those blitzes. We won’t have 100% of them, but we’ll have a lot of them.”
He adds, “When you have the headset on you can turn around and hear and see Coach Teevens behind you. Almost more important is the auditory component: you hear the checks, you hear the offensive line and hear the linebackers making calls, and all of your senses are being simulated.”
McIntyre sees virtual reality training as the wave of the future, not just in football but across athletics. It may prove difficult in lacrosse and hockey, sports that are fast and really never stationary like football or baseball. But McIntyre says that if STRIVR or other virtual reality sports systems can put together a package that tracks fast movement, then lacrosse and hockey could also use virtual reality.
“Virtual reality is here and it will be helpful,” he says. “NFL teams are on it and they see the value in it. There are NCAA teams on it, but this is really the first year, and it’s going to be telling as far as how teams use it as well as for the return on investment.”
Another upside to virtual reality in sports for NCAA teams will be found in recruiting value. A big part of McIntyre’s job is national recruitment. Ideally, Dartmouth — like any other team — would love to bring potential student-athletes to the campus for a visit. If this can’t be done in-person (initially), then McIntyre believes it can be accomplished virtually.
“We believe that if we can physically get them to campus we can get them to commit [to the program],” he says. “But if we can’t do that, then we can bring the headsets into a home in California or Oklahoma, and parents can see what’s going on here virtually, then we think we can get them to campus and that’s important. The recruiting value for us is great.”
In this scenario, the player could be shown the inside of the football stadium, taken through the workout facilities, the rehab space, to what his locker room would look like. The VR headset could show him the outside of the stadium when fans are there, and the inside of the stadium for that matter. The recruiters could even show game footage shot with a 360 camera and sound to put them there virtually for that experience.
They could even show them some footage of practices so the recruits could know what it feels like to be in the huddle on either offense or defense. They could meet the coaches and other staff members virtually, and some of the veteran players. With a mobile rig, the recruiters could also show the player around the larger campus. Show them where student athletes hang out, and where other co-eds congregate.
So far, Belch says the STRIVR team hasn’t encountered many skeptics. And while there are no solid statistics on how effective the STRIVR system is just yet, head coach David Shaw at Stanford points to QB Kevin Hogan's use of the system as one of the reasons he performed so well at the end of last year, finishing the season 3-0 including a win over top-10 ranked UCLA on the road and a big win over Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl game.
Belch says that STRIVR’s “end game” is all about data and analytics. “We are already in the process of creating predictive analytics for the teams we are working with based on how their players behave in the virtual environment,” he says.
Will fledgeling quarterbacks soon be training in their living rooms? We don't know, but technology makers are definelty invested in the prospect.