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All You Need To Know About Virtual Reality Training In College Football And The NFL

29 June 2015, 9:26 am EDT By Mark Lelinwalla Tech Times
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Derek Belch's STRIVR virtual reality training program is already being used by college football teams such as Auburn, Arkansas, Clemson, Vanderbilt, Dartmouth, and Stanford and the NFL's Dallas Cowboys. That number is only going to grow in the near future.  ( STRIVR )

If it's something that can offer them an edge, sports teams are going to be interested getting their hands on it.

That increasingly seems to be true for virtual reality technology. One company—STRIVR Labs out of Stanford's Silicon Valley—is rapidly supplying more and more top-flight college football programs and NFL franchises with its virtual reality training simulation platform.

In speaking with Tech Times, STRIVR Labs CEO and Founder, Derek Belch, says Auburn, Arkansas, Clemson, Vanderbilt, Dartmouth, and of course, Stanford, are all using the company's patent-pending virtual reality training regimen. As for the NFL, "America's Team," the Dallas Cowboys, signed on to use STRIVR's program earlier this month, even adding a new room in their practice facility to accommodate the technology.

STRIVR captures live plays and content from teams' practices and then via its software, feeds 3-D video images to training players through an Oculus Rift headset. (Although STRIVR uses the Oculus Rift now, it could change its preference with the impending emergence of different headset VR manufacturers). Think of STRIVR's virtual reality training protocol as a flight simulator, but for football...and more sports to come. It essentially has football players walking through real-game experiences.

As of Sunday (June 28), Belch estimated that the number of college football teams using STRIVR's virtual reality platform will double by the time training camp begins in late July to early August. Although the Cowboys are the only NFL team that has officially signed with the company, Belch says STRIVR has an agreement in principle with two other teams and is waiting response from three more league franchises.

"We could easily have anywhere from five to 10 NFL teams come training camp time," Belch tells Tech Times. "So, that's where we're at.

"One of the things we thought about a lot is it's not like we're starting in high school or Division II ball or some no-name program. This is the best of the best right out of the gate," he added. "On the one hand, it's awesome. On the other hand, it's a lot of pressure, so you better deliver."

So far, STRIVR has been delivering well. Here's everything you need to know about STRIVR's origins, how the technology works, what the quarterbacks see, if it can reduce injury and if others sports can possibly use virtual reality training as well.

STRIVR's Origins

(Photo : STRIVR)

As an undergrad at Stanford University about eight years ago, Derek Belch (pictured above) was taking classes taught by Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford's renowned Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

There, Belch, who was also a kicker for the school's football team from 2003-07, spoke with Bailenson about the possibility of training athletes using virtual reality. At the time, though, the consensus was the technology was nowhere near being ready.

Little did they know, that they would join forces to figure out virtual reality training in sports years later. After graduating from Stanford in 2008, Belch took up senior consultant work, before earning a masters business degree from USC in 2012 and returning to Stanford as a special teams assistant coach.

Back at Stanford, Belch didn't let up on his idea to bring virtual reality training to athletes. When he returned, he once again brought the subject up to Bailenson, who encouraged Belch to make the topic the main subject for his post-graduate masters' thesis. Belch did just that and by this time, the technology had made advances.

"Jeremy said 'the one caveat here is the technology isn't getting there, it's already here,'" says Belch, remembering his professor's old words to him. "I was all in. That's kind of how [STRIVR] got off the ground. That was the genesis of the concept."

After working with Bailenson to create the virtual reality training software, Belch was able to convince Stanford football coach David Shaw to allow testing with his squad, beginning last spring.

It was a hit, so much so that the Cardinals wound up using the technology through their 2014 season.

"Fast forward to December and coach Shaw tells me he thinks we've got something pretty good and pretty unique and if he were me, he'd pursue it with everything he had and there would be a job waiting for me as a coach if it didn't work out," says Belch, 29, a resident of Menlo Park, CA. "We went to the combine in February to show some coaches some test stuff and it's been a whirlwind ever since."

How Strivr's Virtual Reality Training Program Works

(Photo : Arkansas Razorbacks)

Say an NCAA college football team or NFL franchise wants the STRIVR virtual reality training platform and they give Belch a call.

He visits the team, walks them through a demo and if they're interested, Belch is off to capturing content from their practices, live from the field as soon as the next day.

Once enough of the content is created and the software is catered to that team's plays, players can see real 3-D video images through an Oculus Rift headset.

Although there isn't an unlimited supply of plays one can program in there, "it ends up being a nice library full of combinations and permutations," Belch says.

He adds: "As far as teams that will be jumping in from here on, we'll actually go to minicamp and we'll do a deal and get everything set up and hopefully it's running like a well-oiled machine."

Belch declined to state the fee teams have to pay for the STRIVR virtual reality training program.

What Do Quarterbacks See?

(Photo : Arkansas Razorbacks)

Although the virtual reality training program is made for nearly every position player on the football field, quarterback is a logical starting point.

"Pretty much when he puts [the headset] on and he's going to have his eyes as if he was on the field," Belch says of the real-life look the VR software gives QBs. "You're going to look down, you're going to look up and you're going to look left and right. You're going to be right there on the practice field. From a mental training standpoint, he's able to go through—without running around hard and maybe he won't sweat, but without physically exerting himself too much—he's able to get reps from a mental standpoint. For that position, it's absolutely invaluable as far as improving your reaction time and decision making."

Other Positions

(Photo : Arkansas Razorbacks)

As aforementioned, although quarterback is usually the first to come to mind and perhaps the one the software and overall program is most advantageous for, STRIVR offers training regimens for nearly all position players.

Belch says the virtual reality training is especially effective for position players who "have to process information very quickly before they make a psychical move or while they're making a physical move."

The company has come up with decision-making content simulation that works towards making players better physically, mentally, and even emotionally.

Can Virtual Reality Training Lessen Injuries In Football?

(Photo : Ronald Martinez | Getty Images Sport)

The emergence of virtual reality training isn't going to lessen injuries in football.

Look, let's face it—injuries are always going to be a part of the gridiron and any sport for that matter. Belch says any company touting that virtual reality training lessens injuries "probably never been on a football field."

But what STRIVR is comfortable saying is that its software and training will allow coaches the luxury of supplementing on-field time, especially for injured players or players making their way back from injuries.

"You'll be able to find ways for injured players—that instead of pushing their bodies through a practice, how about they could get their reps and the mental work instead?" Belch says.

The other part of virtual reality training and the injury factor is let's not forget that quarterbacks don't get hit during most practices—as its against most teams' policies—so to claim the technology decreases the likelihood of a football injury would be foolish in a sense.

"Nothing will replace physical work or a combination of physical and mental, but maybe down the road," Belch continues, "we do get guys who want to spend more time in the virtual environment and not on the field, whether that's required time or their own."

Feedback

(Photo : Rob Carr | Getty Images Sport)

When STRIVR was still taking shape, Belch found out that former NFL QB and his ex- Stanford teammate, Trent Edwards, was in town and he asked him to try out STRIVR's virtual reality training. According to Fox Sports, within two minutes, Edwards told him, "I think this is awesome. I want to work for you." Edwards became the company's VP of Product & Business Development.

Super Bowl-winning quarterback Trent Dilfer also was taken aback by the technology. He told Fox Sports: "I was blown away. I thought, 'This is gonna change how QBs prepare.' I've seen just about everything that's out there and there's nothing like this. I think if Drew Brees or Tom Brady sees this, they're gonna demand it."

Tech Times' phone calls to the Dallas Cowboys weren't returned, but the team's coach Jason Garrett (pictured above) did tell ESPN the following earlier this month:

"It's interesting because it gives you the chance from behind to see all 11 guys on offense and all 11 guys on defense but from a closer angle. Oftentimes you have to kind of pull yourself away to get the all-22 shot. This allows you to get a little closer so you can coach better. You can see hand placement. You see where they have their feet, where they have their eyes. I think that's important. You can look at that and coach them better being that much closer to the action."

Belch and STRIVR couldn't be more pleased by the early reception.

"The feedback across the board has been so phenomenal," Belch says. "It looks real, it sounds real, it feels real...and it might actually be real for some of these guys."

Best-Case Scenario For The Future

(Photo : STRIVR)

When Tech Times ponders if virtual reality training can be a bridge between football players dissecting film in the classroom and getting on the practice field, Belch is confident.

"We might get into a situation here where guys have replaced visualization before the game with virtual reps," he says. "I think that could be something that's very powerful. Only time will tell. We'll see how this plays out."

With many college football programs and NFL franchises set to sign on this year...it's playing out pretty well.

Virtual Reality Training In Other Sports

(Photo : Elsa | Getty Images Sport)

When asked if STRIVR is developing software for other sports, Belch said yes, but was tight-lipped on actually mentioning any. That being said, Stanford published a report in February about NBA commissioner Adam Silver being blown away by the technology during a visit to the school's Virtual Human Interactive Lab, so we may see virtual reality training be a part of pro basketball.

We could also see it just as easily be integrated into Major League Baseball. Imagine how useful it would be towards injured pitchers coming off the designated list or batters for that matter, too.

The possibilities of virtual reality training in sports are endless.

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