You know your product is effective when a 12-year veteran quarterback like Tony Romo, for whom breaking a huddle is as routine as brushing his teeth, forgets he’s in a room wearing goggles and headphones and instead believes he’s on the practice field about to run a play.
His muscles tense. He gets in his quarterback stance. His hands twitch in anticipation of taking the football.
“We call this ‘presence,’” said Jeremy Bailenson, an associate professor at Stanford and an expert in virtual reality. “Presence is a psychological state where you completely forget there’s a physical world and you completely buy into the illusion. With football players ... I get such a kick out of watching some reptilian part of their brain just instantly go into field mode. And you don’t get that from watching film.”
NFL teams and college programs are beginning to agree. Which is why the virtual reality system developed by Bailenson and a former student, ex-Stanford kicker Derek Belch, is suddenly a hot item for teams seeking a practice edge.
The 49ers and Cowboys will add virtual reality to their weekly preparations this season with more teams expected to sign on in coming days. Five FBS college teams also use it, both to give their players virtual practice repetitions – notably without any physical wear and tear – and to allow recruits to experience what it’s like to be part of their program.
University of Arkansas recruits, for instance, can see what it’s like to pump out squat-lifts in the school’s state-of-the-art weight room, their teammates egging them on from all sides. A prospective Auburn player can feel what it’s like to get hit by the din from thousands of screaming fans and a marching band as he emerges from the stadium tunnel.
Belch and Bailenson devised the concept nearly a decade ago, but the technology wasn’t ready. Recently – with companies like Google, Samsung and Nokia competing for a chunk of the virtual reality market, the tools not only were available but affordable, and Belch formed a startup called STRIVR Labs. With the blessing of Stanford coach David Shaw, he began testing his ideas at practices last season.
Each Monday, Belch filmed Stanford’s scout-team defense as it ran its upcoming opponent’s most challenging blitzes and formations. The images then were stitched together to give the user the exact experience a quarterback would have. Look up, and there’s the safety creeping toward the line of scrimmage. Turn your neck to the right, and there’s the wideout. Behind you is the running back. You can see the center identifying a potential blitzer.
“What makes VR special is the fact that you use your body to navigate the scene,” Bailenson said. “You’re not watching a scene. You are actually within a scene (while) perceiving the world using the motor mechanisms that you would use in the physical world.”
By the end of Stanford’s season, the STRIVR group had honed the product to the point where quarterback Kevin Hogan began using it as part of his game-day preparations. His completion percentage jumped from 64 percent to 76 percent in the three games in which virtual reality was part of his routine.
“When you’re just watching film, you don’t get the sound, you don’t get that real-life feel of the game,” Hogan told Fox Sports. “With this, I can see what the structure is.”
Belch’s business partner, Trent Edwards, is a former Stanford quarterback who played for five NFL teams from 2007 to 2014. Edwards said virtual reality is an excellent tool for a starting quarterback who wants extra looks at specific defensive schemes, and he said 14 of the 32 NFL starters, including Romo and Colin Kaepernick, have tested a demo version. He said it may be even more useful to their understudies.
“There’s a ton of value with the Brandon Weedens and the Blaine Gabberts of this world that are one play away from going into an NFL football game without getting a rep in practice,” Edwards said.
The Cowboys, who were the first NFL team to hire STRIVR, recognized that immediately. After all, coach Jason Garrett played 14 NFL seasons, primarily as a backup quarterback. During STRIVR’s pitch to the Cowboys, Edwards said, Garrett wore the headset for five minutes and then began making arrangements to have a dedicated “Virtual Reality Room” for Romo and Weeden, complete with soundproof walls and a floor made of FieldTurf.
“We weren’t pushing that,” Edwards said. “We weren’t saying they needed a VR room. That was all Jason.”
Edwards and other STRIVR members met with the 49ers in the spring and began filming some of their offseason practices. Team officials were part of the meeting, as were a number of players, each of whom could envision an application at his position.
During the past year, the group has figured out ways to provide a virtual reality perspective for offensive linemen and other positions. The most frenetic positions, like wide receiver and defensive back, are more difficult to document, and Bailenson said there can be a problem with nausea when running, say, a virtual buttonhook. But he said the technology is steaming ahead so fast that the issue could be solved by next year.
What was Kaepernick’s response to the system?
“He was probably, out the group of quarterbacks, the one that stayed the longest and had the most questions, which I really enjoy,” Edwards said. “I’m one of those question-askers and want to know everything I can. That’s just the same way I’m wired.”
The 49ers have been mum about how they will incorporate virtual reality this season, but it’s safe to say their use will evolve as they get acquainted with the technology. Most teams likely will use it the way Stanford did a year ago – with a STRIVR cameraman arriving early in the week to shoot footage and players using it later in the week.
The question now becomes, how long will it be an advantage for teams like the 49ers and Cowboys? Every team is constantly seeking an edge, and the idea of virtual reality has been embraced – sometimes enthusiastically so – by nearly everyone who has used it.
“There was one head coach – and it’s not public yet which team (we were meeting with) – who put it on and was so engaged that he smashed his hand into the table,” Bailenson said. “You know that technology is working when people forget they’re in the physical world and are completely consumed. It’s like they’re on the field.”