Among all the talk of rookies, holdouts, fresh starts and, of course, the never-ending Deflategate conversation, there's buzz around a new topic at NFL training camps this year: virtual reality (VR). Several teams in the NFL are testing VR during summer practices in hopes of giving players new perspectives, in-depth data during film studies and a leg up on the competition.
"[Game] tape is extremely valuable, and now you have a new perspective with a new camera angle," says Mark Fidelman, founder of Fanzeal, a social network for athletes, teams and fans, and author of Socialized!: How the Most Successful Businesses Harness the Power of Social. "There's going to be a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking with this device, and it's only going to increase because the coaches and staff can see everything now."
Virtual reality catches on in NFL
At least five NFL teams -- the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints -- are using Strivr Labs software for VR. Derek Belch, a former Stanford student and football player, founded the company along with one of his Stanford professors.
The Strivr system uses footage captured by 360-degree cameras placed in close proximity to players, and then plays it back via VR headsets. Strivr currently works with Oculus Rift headsets, and they plug into computers that run Strivr's system. The footage is not animated or manipulated; it's actual footage of practices, which Strivr uses to build a library of plays for each team to watch.
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Belch says the company uses real footage instead of computer-generated imagery because it's much more effective for the players. "[W]hen you watch video games in an immersed environment it's cool, but when trying to train athletes' brains, they will tune out and end up making decisions off of false cues." Gathering and organizing real footage is labor intensive, however, and every recorded play must be manually entered into the system.
The advantage of VR for professional football players is the ability to watch plays in an immersive environment anywhere, anytime, according to Belch. "In the NFL especially, they've stripped away how much time teams are allowed to spend on the field," he says. Players can use [VR] "extensively when they aren't on the field and will be getting reps."
Belch wouldn't share specifics on how much NFL teams pay for the system, but he did say that the company is working on a related consumer product, and the plan is for fans to eventually try it out during games.
Multiple players in the virtual reality game
Another VR company, Eon Sports, partnered with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Eon has several products, but the two main methods used by professional football teams include a video VR device that records plays from one player's perspective to view later, using a Go Pro camera; and Sidekiq, which lets users slide any smartphone into a VR headset and then view computer generated simulations. Both methods use Eon's proprietary streaming engine to deliver footage to smartphones and VR headsets. The company's products work with hardware from other brands, including Oculus Rift headsets and Go Pro cameras, but it also makes its own headsets.
Brendan Reilly, Eon Sports CEO, says scalability is an issue with the Go Pro method because the video only shows one player's perspective. On the other hand, the perspective can be switched from linebacker to wide receiver to quarterback, using computer-generated simulations. In just a few minutes, coaches can create any computer-generated scenarios they want, and players can view them through headsets, according to Reilly. In other words, teams could theoretically convert entire playbooks into VR simulations.
"Our engine breathes life into the Xs and Os," he says, because it also provides analysis of how well players understand the plays. "We know when you're in there at quarterback, if you've executed the throw correctly, and if you threw it on time."
Reilly says the Bucs use parts of both Eon's VR methods. He declined to specific how much the team pays for the system but said the cost for NFL teams generally is between $1,000 and $75,000, depending on usage.
Ultimately, VR will likely be most valuable to players who are decision-makers on the field, such as quarterbacks, linebackers and defensive backs, according to Fidelman. "Anyone that's got to read the offense or defense and make critical decisions in real time will find value from it."
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