michael-casaleWhen Derek Belch was a kicker on Stanford’s football team in 2004, he took a class with the Virtual Human Interaction Lab’s Jeremy Bailenson where he was exposed to virtual reality technologies for the first time. Belch asked Bailenson if it was possible to use VR to train football players, but the technology wasn’t ready yet back in 2004. Fast-forward 10 years with Oculus Rift VR development kits readily available, Belch started a master’s thesis project with Bailenson to study how to use VR to train quarterbacks.

Their pilot program had promising results, but not enough conclusive evidence to be able to say for sure. But the response from football players and coaches was so overwhelmingly positive that they decided to start a company called STRIVR Labs to put their research into practice. They quickly signed up Stanford, Vanderbilt, Clemson, Auburn, Arkansas and Dartmouth as their first official partners to continue their research, and they also started working with NFL teams including the Cowboys, Cardinals, Giants, Vikings, and Jets.

I had a chance to catch up with STRIVR Lab’s Chief Science Officer, Michael Casale, at the Experiential Technology and Neurogaming Conference in May. Casale was brought on by Bailenson to help advise Belch’s master’s thesis on learning transfer and category learning techniques that would optimize the learning process. He’s continued this transfer learning research by working with elite athletes at both the collegiate and professional level at STRIVR Labs since it moved from an academic research project into the real world.

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Casale was hesitant to report on specific quantitative evidence since there are a lot of proprietary metrics that they’re using internally, but he said that there’s been a lot that’s been reported within the mainstream press. The San Diegeo Tribune reported that Stanford quarterback “Hogan’s pass completion rate jumped from a 65 percent average over the first 10 games of the season, to a 76.3 percent average over the last three games – right around the time he started using the virtual reality trainer to study defenses and make decisions.”

The article emphasizes that correlation is not causation, and establishing learning transfer from VR technologies to the real world is still an open problem. But there’s a strong indicator that VR is having a huge impact when looking at Arizona Cardinal’s record 13-3 season with VR early adopter Carson Palmer telling ESPN that “I think it’s improved my stats. It’s improved my knowledge of our offense.” ESPN speculated that “It might not be a coincidence that Palmer had the best season of his career, throwing 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns, and finished the season with a career high in quarterback rating (104.1) and QBR (82.1).”

Casale hinted that there’s a lot of value that’s being gained from VR training that might not explicitly show up within the existing statistics that drive fantasy football leagues. Being able to detect an oncoming blitz and dynamically changing the play before the snap is one example of a skill that can honed within VR, but not directly measured on the field. Quarterbacks can also watch themselves from the 360 footage and they can then work on correcting their throwing motion and footwork in the offseason.

A vital part of the training is being able to have more interactive coaching sessions where the quarterback can re-watch different defensive positions and talk about how they would change or adapt their play. Here’s some footage of a Stanford quarterback reading the defense and telling his coach what he sees.

Rather than translating X’s and O’s of a play from a 2D whiteboard in their mind, quarterbacks can prepare and watch what the field actually looks like from VR reps. Carson Palmer was learning 171 plays in 5 days using STRIVR Labs VR system installed in the comfort of his own home.

VR locomotion is still an unsolved open problem, and so most of STRIVR Labs’ VR training for football, basketball, football, baseball, and soccer is shot using a stationary 360 camera, but they’re looking to be able to move around as well. It’s likely that they would have to move to a CGI environment for that, or perhaps there will eventually be a breakthrough in volumetric digital lightfield capture. But for now, they’re focusing on training quarterbacks, goalies, watching pitches, and shooting freethrows.

One big challenge facing STRIVR Labs is that their sample size for elite athletes at the collegiate and professional level is still pretty small, and so determining the optimal combination and sequence of physical and virtual reps is one of the biggest open questions that they’re still trying to answer. This could explain a big motivation for why they’re considering expanding and scaling into high school training as well.

As the 360 video capture process evolves and becomes more mainstream, then there’s not going be a lot of technological barriers for other competitors to start to enter into the sports training space, but knowing the optimal training combinations and VR production best practices is going to help STRIVR Labs maintain their current leadership position. And just as Sabermetrics revolutionized the ability to more objectively track impactful baseball players, then I expect that STRIVR Labs to come up with their own set of new objective measurements that use VR technologies to track the progress of learning and performance of elite athletes. And given the objective success that VR early adopters have seen, then we can expect that virtual reality sports training is here to stay.

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