New technology regularly transforms sport — 4K television cameras deliver ultra-clear pictures; slow-mo replays show us the tiniest details; while Hawk-Eye ball tracking helps umpires make the right calls at key moments in cricket and tennis matches.
All of this technology, along with F1-friendly computer sims, heart rate monitors and distributed football scouting networks, has helped to improve sport at the elite level.
Perhaps we can add virtual sports training to the list?
In the United States, Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) is leading the charge. VHIL developed an Oculus Rift-based VR tech that was spun off to form STRIVR Labs. This startup now provides virtual reality training solutions to high school, college, and professional football teams. Check out their technology in the video below.
VR is particularly useful for NFL quarterbacks, as it offers crafted virtual environments in which players can practice in-game situations repeatedly without getting hit by rushing defensive players.
Sport sims allow players to safely experience different scenarios
The interactive simulations are completely immersive, stitched together from videos recorded at a multitude of camera angles. So players can experience or re-experience scenarios with the psychological pressures that a real game provides and that no tape can replicate.
And for coaches, the exciting thing is that VR allows them to walk a player through a situation, pausing the action mid-frame to talk about the options they face in that precise moment.
STRIVR’s client list already includes several college football teams as well as the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, and Minnesota Vikings. But they’re not the only virtual training system in town.
Eon Sports VR has also made headway among the American football pros with its SIDEKIQ head-mounted display (see above) and live-action, 360-degree VR training experiences.
The Icube is arguably the ultimate in virtual training — a $99,999 “multi-sided Virtual Reality environment in which participants become completely immersed through imagery and sound.”
Other sports have been slow to pick up VR technology, partly because most sports are far less organised and rigid than American football and thus far more complicated to adapt to immersive VR training sims.
But it’s also because VR is best for training decision-making and awareness related to spatial relationships between different players, and that’s not such an important factor in sports like tennis, cricket, and baseball.
VR is making inroads into association football too. A Dutch company called Beyond Sports is collaborating with Utrecht University and top Eredivisie clubs Ajax, PSV, and AZ Alkmaar on interactive training scenarios and multi-perspective immersive match analysis tools that work with an Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard headset.
Could virtual reality train the next Wayne Rooney?
In top-flight football, modern data tracking systems can record key statistics plus player and ball positions throughout each match. This data is getting more accurate and complete all the time. Who knows, given enough time and support, technology could train the next Wayne Rooney or Raheem Sterling.
With a VR setup, such as the one Beyond Sports is building, it will enable players, fans, and coaches to relive key moments from any perspective. Such a system will ultimately be able to replay what a player saw, enabling them to analyse why they made a particular decision, why they played a pass (or why they didn’t).
This virtual approach could be especially potent for training spatial and situational awareness. These are crucial attributes in football as it’s essentially a game of creating and using space to manipulate the ball into a more advantageous position — something that players do by tracking the positions of other players in their heads.
Of course, this VR revolution comes with some downsides. Disorientation and nausea can be a problem, especially if headsets are worn for more than 30 minutes at a time — which means, in the short term, VR is unlikely to replace conventional match replay study sessions and chalkboard tactical overviews.
But virtual sports training could add an extra dimension to training sessions and elite sportsmen may not be the only ones to benefit. As the costs of VR fall and the technology improves, perhaps all you’ll need is a cheap set of goggles, a smartphone and a VR app to get started. — Richard Moss (@MossRC)