Beyond the Frame: Chasing Perfection is part of a joint effort between Samsung and Viceland that examines how virtual reality is enhancing our lives and the world we live in. In this episode, we will explore how VR is reshaping the future of professional sports, and how athletes are leveraging technological advances in this realm to achieve precision and excellence in ways that weren't previously possible.
Professional sports can be as much about honing your mental skills as being physically fit for the game. And perhaps better than most athletes, this notion is appreciated by football quarterbacks, who have to make complicated and critical decisions in sub-second timeframes. But the mind's vast potential for practice is bound to the body's limited capacity for practicing on the field. Fortunately, with the help of virtual reality, athletes will be able to continue training long after the body has depleted its reserves.
"90 percent of the battle of players at the highest levels—college and the NFL—is just knowing what to do," says Derek Belch, co-founder and CEO of VR startup STRIVR Labs. "It's not physically doing it. Everybody's big, fast and strong. There's really only a few that stand out relative to the competition. But if you know where to go with the ball, or what to do on your assignment quicker than your opponent, odds are you're going to win."
The aim of STRIVR Labs, which launched in early 2015, is to help college and professional sports teams advance their training program to the next level through virtual reality recreations of practice situations that enable athletes and coaches to experience plays an unlimited number of times, from the most favorable vantage point.
"Giving players more reps in a virtual environment is going to have a positive effect on their performance in the field," Belch says.
This is a fact that's being confirmed by head coaches. "What I've seen from all of our quarterbacks—it's expedited their progress incredibly," says Kliff Kingsbury, Head Football Coach at Texas Tech University, which enrolled in STRIVR's technology earlier this year. "They got on [STRIVR] off-season and it pops up the play."
And that's where virtual reality enters the fray. STRIVR uses high definition 360-degree cameras to capture VR footage of different positions on the football field at every play on both offense and defense for teams it works with. The recorded video, viewable with VR headsets such as the Samsung Gear VR, provides coaches and players with an immersive, first-person view that rivals the on-field experience. And this is a dramatic upgrade compared to the traditional third-person-view films teams use to train players off the turf.
Kingsbury, a former quarterback at Texas Tech who also played in the NFL, understands well the challenges involved in replicating the quarterback experience. "My entire life, I always searched for how to simulate playing the position of quarterbacks," he told VICE. "You can go throw, work out, you can run sprints but you can't simulate that. You don't have 21 other guys."
"When players watch film, they watch it from 50 feet in the air," Belch explains. "They don't watch film from the view they actually have on the field. So the whole idea of what we're doing here using virtual reality to train the players, is we're giving them the actual viewpoint they have on the field."
"When you put this on you can work the mental aspects of [the quarterback position]," Kingsbury says. "You can get it through your eyes. You can get your footwork in. So it's the closest thing you can do to playing the position." Meanwhile, the coach and evaluator will be able to see where the quarterback looks through a different display, and better understand the situation.
"With quarterbacks, it's different because you really have a lot to see on every single play," says Patrick Mahomes, Texas Tech's quarterback. "Just being able to be right where you were during the play and see exactly what you did really helps you finding out if you did something wrong."
Aside from the unique angle of view, virtual reality is speeding up the process of training quarterbacks by enabling them to go through more reps than they would normally do without breaking the strict rules that govern the time players can spend training in the field. "We can only practice so many reps out in the field," Kingsbury adds. "But with [virtual reality], we can capture all that film throughout the year and [the quarterback] can continuously get in there, see the fronts, see the defense, go through the process. And it's really expedited all our quarterbacks' progress."
As Kingsbury explained to VICE, Mahomes has had an approximate extra 1,500 reps in the past six months thanks to STRIVR's technology. And even when he can't attend practice due to injury or fatigue, he can go through the reps with the VR headset. The high definition VR footage also provides backup quarterbacks the opportunity to go through the reps that they miss on the field.
Kingsbury believes virtual reality can be the technology that evens the odds and allows smaller teams to make big strides. "You have some of your really top, top tier football programs that get a lot of the five-star, big time players," he says. "And if you're not getting all of those guys, you better find advantages elsewhere. And this is one, particularly a quarterback. We think we can develop elite-level quarterbacks, and if you have that, you have a chance every Saturday. And this tool has helped us dramatically."
STRIVR Labs' technology is being used to train athletes in more than 20 college and professional teams, including the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets. More teams are expected to be recruited into the fold soon.
After remaining experimental for years, virtual reality is now mainstream in several industries. The possibilities are virtually endless and we're still exploring what VR can truly do. From the fan experience to the training field and beyond, this new computing platform has established itself as a phenomenon that could revolutionize sports.
This content was a joint effort between Samsung and Viceland.