College campuses are alive with excitement as the best teams across the nation kicked off the 2016 NCAAF season; with Stanford, Oregon, and Southern California all vying for the top spot in the Pac-12.
Specific rankings aside, all teams in one of college football’s toughest conferences believe they have what it takes to be the best. They train hard, they analyze their strengths and weaknesses, and they recruit some of the most talented athletes this country has to offer.
But thanks to scientific innovation and the guts to embrace new philosophies, Stanford University just might have an edge over the competition.
At the end of last season (with a dominating performance in the Rose Bowl and winning four of their last five regular season games,) Stanford had a secret weapon: virtual reality training.
Former Stanford kicker Derek Belch was an assistant football coach at Stanford while completing his master’s degree. For his thesis, he decided to explore applying virtual reality to sports training using the Stanford quarterbacks—and the entire football team—as test subjects. With the help of professor Jeremy Bailenson, head of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, STRIVR Labs and a 360-degree, immersive experience was born.
How It Works
In an article written by Bruce Feldman of Foxsports.com, Belch describes VR for quarterbacks as “like the flight simulator idea, he is in one spot: the cockpit.” Belch describes the cockpit of a quarterback as being a three-yard halo, and he wanted to simulate that halo.
To do that, STRIVR captures 50 or so plays during practice on video, which are then rendered for virtual reality. TechCrunch describes the process as “(using) everything from GoPros to high-end Blackmagic cameras to capture footage, before using a combination of custom-built computer and camera solutions, and custom software” specifically designed to automatically stitch together video at the highest quality, and quickly.
Players strap on headsets, and find themselves in an immersive 360-degree environment. As STRIVR describes it on its website, “you may physically be in the classroom, but in the VR headset you’re right back on the field,” complete with audio. Coaches can talk to players, ask questions as they go through plays and help quarterbacks better understand how to react. When game day rolls around, as former Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan can attest, virtual reality has already primed the brain to react as scenarios unfold.
“If you’re studying from the QB’s perspective, going through reads, looking at the depth of the linebackers, how quickly the windows close, (the virtual reality) is beneficial,” Hogan told The Mercury News in 2015.
Benefit: Making the Unfamiliar, Familiar
The real-life, game-like scenarios as seen from the quarterback position can be leveraged in all kinds of ways; and not just for a starting quarterback’s game-day preparation.
Second and third string quarterbacks, who often don’t get many live snaps (or many snaps during practice,) can get a stronger sense of what it’s like on the field, playing in a live game. New players can strap on headsets and quickly learn the playbook, while players returning or rehabbing from injuries can practice without physical contact.
Stanford football coach David Shaw told FoxSports.com that, “If I can get the quarterback’s mind to feel like, ‘Hey, I’ve been here before,’ he can make quicker decisions. He can anticipate what’s gonna happen, which heightens our chances of success.”
But this goes beyond making in-game scenarios familiar. The use of VR technology, like that developed by STRIVR, also helps cut down on practice time without sacrificing quality or incurring injuries. It also creates a “library of things,” as Shaw put it, that players can learn. That knowledge can translate into more completed passes on the field. It can also apply to other sports, like smoother swings in baseball, better free-throw percentages in basketball, even more goalie saves in ice hockey or soccer.
And more teams, not just those in college football, want in. According to a recent article from Motherboard, STRIVR is working with 25 different teams across the NFL, NHL, MLB and the NBA. Stanford isn’t the only college football program, either. Other programs, including Auburn, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Temple and the University of Utah have embraced VR training and what it can do to enhance a player’s experience on—and off—the field.
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