Innovation

NFL teams have a new secret weapon to improve performance: Virtual reality

Athletic teams are turning to virtual reality to improve how they practice and prepare for games. TechRepublic talks to EON Sports about how it's helping teams do it.

As the 2015 football season kicks off another year, a handful of teams will be walking onto the field with a more tech-powered approach to practice.

Over the summer, buzz surfaced that teams like the Dallas Cowboys, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the New England Patriots have turned to virtual reality as a method of training of their players.

Similarly, universities like Vanderbilt, Dartmouth, Clemson, Arkansas, Auburn, and Stanford are seeing what VR immersion can do for their game day performances.

The Dallas Cowboys, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the New England Patriots all confirmed to TechRepublic that they're using virtual reality to train. But, presumably because they're using this as a competitive advantage, none of them wanted to elaborate on the ways they are using it.

We talked to two companies looking to make inroads in the virtual reality training space.

EON Sports

Back in 2005, EON Sports CEO and co-founder Brendan Reilly was a student assistant to Bill Self, the coach of the University of Kansas men's basketball team.

"Which is a fancy way of saying I got really good at pouring water," he said.

Up close, he saw that there was something of a void after practice ends. Really, the only way to review and stay fresh was watching game tape, or reviewing plays. He felt like there was the opportunity for a better type of training.

Reilly was thinking about how to address the limitations of physical training. It's crucial but does present certain obstacles: access to facilities, physical wear and tear, the need for rest, and time restraints.

By 2009, Reilly moved on to Illinois State where he was an administrative assistant for men's basketball coach Tim Jankovich. He brought up the idea of finding some type of simulation to integrate into training.

Jankovich told him that if he could find something, they'd buy it and use it. The problem was, there wasn't much out there to buy.

That got Reilly interested in creating something.

He wasn't going to be able to write his own software, so he teamed up with people who specialized in training. That led him to a company called EON Reality, which had a 17-year history in training development and human performance, using VR, but in the aerospace, energy, and defense sectors.

Image: CBS Sports

EON Reality thought his idea of VR sports training had legs. EON Sports officially incorporated in late 2013, and delivered its first product in February 2014.

Currently, EON Sports offers two main types of virtual reality.

First, they can do live action 360 by capturing live footage and then use that to immerse athletes in training, for example, using large screens in a 6-wall set-up.

Then there's the SIDEKIQ Engine, which is a computer-generated engine that allows the user to pull up any play or scenario to run through. He said

"It may not be realistic to go out in the field with 22 guys, running the patterns and routes, but with SIDEKIQ, you can draw it up and within a matter of minutes, you have an entirely recreated situation that you want your guys to train with," Reilly said.

And what's more, EON Sports can translate the simulations to multiple platforms from Google Cardboard to a more immersive environment with trackers and sensors in a first-person perspective. That wasn't an easy thing to pull off, translating complex virtual environments onto something like an iPhone 4 slipped into Google Cardboard.

"We're robust in our ability to provide something a 7th grade quarterback can use, all the way up to something really sophisticated that NFL teams want to use," he said.

EON Sports wants to mitigate all those aforementioned challenges of time, place, and presence.

One area Reilly said the training has been helpful has been in moving through the repetitions of plays, and getting younger players up to speed faster. They're able to cycle through the plays again and again, and quickly.

Progress can be tracked through a dashboard of sorts so coaches can see how beneficial the training is in their players' understanding of what they're seeing and experiencing.

Experience is key. EON Sports is also starting to work with Major League Baseball teams. The only time a team might go up against a specific pitcher is game day. That means they can't get that repetition until the next game in which they face that pitcher again.

"Right now, before they go up to bat, they go to the dugout and watch video of the pitcher throwing, but that doesn't give you much," Reilly said, "so being able to step into the game and experience in real time, that's what's so powerful."

Instead of watching video, they could go up against a pitcher in VR modeled on real life.

Going forward, Reilly said he thinks virtual reality is the first step of many in the evolution of how tech can help athletes train. Used mixed reality and augmented reality, Reilly imagines being able to put a player into any scenario, build in biomechanical responses, and track performance—potentially in the next five years. The hardware has to catch up first, though.

"It's not like you can go to Best Buy and buy the HoloLens yet," he said.

STRIVR Labs

Conceptually, STRIVR started out as an idea Derek Belch had as an undergrad at Stanford University. He played on the football team, and had taken a course called "Virtual People" with professor Jeremy Bailenson, who is the founding director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

Belch wanted to use VR for training, but Bailenson said the tech wasn't quite there yet.

Eight years later, Belch got accepted to a master's program at Stanford, and after talking with Bailenson, took on what would become STRIVR as his master's thesis project, which we was doing as he was an assistant coach for the team. From there, they were able to take the idea to Stanford football coach Dave Shaw, who was onboard with the idea.

By January 2015, that master's thesis turned into a company.

They did a pilot run last year at Stanford, and have since signed teams like the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots, as well as college teams from Dartmouth, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Clemson, and Arkansas. In total, Belch said they're working with 6 NFL teams and 7 college teams, plus one team from each the NHL, NBA, and WNBA.

STRIVR uses real video footage.

"There's a lot of challenges to that," Belch said, "You've got to find a way to put a camera on the field and make it from a player's viewpoint."

So, an athlete can put on an Oculus Rift and see the field.

On the people side, Belch said StriVr thinks it's a plus that the company is features multiple former football players, from both college and professional levels. Partly because it brings an understanding of how VR could be integrated into the pre-existing methodology of players and coaches.

"The challenge there is how do you integrate something totally new and disruptive into what these guys do?" Belch said.

The use and frequency of use depends on the team, and for STRIVR, that's part of the process of learning what's working as the season progresses.

"You're talking about going against a half a century of going against ways are used to preparing, with film, and doing it a certain way and this is a new way of teaching and of learning," Belch said.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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