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How VR Will Help Sculpt the Athlete of the Future

Virtual reality has the potential to improve how elite-level athletes prepare for the big game.

The athletes of the future will make better decisions in their sport, recognize patterns more quickly, and have an improved reaction time—and they'll get there with the power of virtual reality. The hope is that this technology will improve on-the-field performance, so games of the future will include quarterbacks that throw fewer interceptions and complete more passes, running backs who recognize and hit holes more quickly, basketball players who make more free throws, and hockey goalies who make more saves.

In fact, some athletes have already started using 360-degree VR tech in training. The company STRIVR works with approximately 25 different teams across the NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA, and even high school and college football. In addition to the film study players and coaches already do, where they analyze the bird's eye or overhead view of practices and games, STRIVR offers a new vantage point—the first person view. "We recreate practice situations in virtual reality in an environment that feels very real, like being back on the field," says Danny Belch, STRIVR head of strategy.

But there are some limitations. Recording involves setting the camera up on a tripod in a static situation—you can't strap a VR camera on a player because the film would make viewers nauseous. All of the films are of practice, not games. And it's not cheap: Belch said the cost can range anywhere from $50,000 to upwards of $250,000 per year, depending on the team, league, and the service they want.

When football teams, such as the Minnesota Vikings, have quarterback meetings, they'll start by watching film shot from above and follow that by viewing VR film for a better vantage point. "They'll all get on a headset, all the different quarterbacks, the first, second, and third string, and the coach will be there, and he'll run the different players through the headset, and ask them what they see. They're going to have to comment on the defensive scheme; they're going to have to comment on what they should do with the ball when it comes to them," Belch said.

VR footage is also a great coaching tool, because STRIVR replicates what the users see inside their headset on the screen. This allows the coach to see an athlete's head movement and which direction they're looking.

"When you're watching a bird's eye view video and everyone's staring at the TV and the coach says, 'Did you see that?' it's easy to say 'yes, I saw that' and the coach can't know. But in VR, you can't hide," said Belch.This allows coaches to know whether a player's timing was off, or if they didn't look in the correct direction.

Basketball players, on the other hand, can simply use STRIVR as as a visualization tool, watching themselves making shots in VR to help them shoot a better free throw percentage in the future.

STRIVR is in the early stages of developing a sparring simulator which it hopes to use for the UFC. It would allow fighters to watch certain moves or techniques over and over again in VR, without the limitations of physical repetitions. The hope is that this will improve reaction time and improve movements—for example, head, arm, and shoulder movements, which would make athletes more effective in a fight. Obviously individualizing this for each fighter would be difficult, given the wide range of styles and techniques (not to mention height and reach variations for any given fight, and that of their opponent), but it could well prove effective for fundamentals.

In addition to training athletes, STRIVR is working with a large retailer that's using VR to train customer service employees to be more prepared to meet scenarios on the floor, and to improve their efficiency at work. The company's also working with a large manufacturer to help people who need to learn how to use heavy, dangerous equipment.

Belch, the brother of STRIVR's CEO, expects to see more adoption of VR in the next couple of years—and beyond, as the technology and hardware drops in price. He also predicts that usage will increase across industries. "It's just like a flight simulator. The flight simulator is a great tool and invention for a reason-it's the best way for a pilot to learn how to fly a plane without actually going up and flying a plane. We are somewhat like a flight simulator in that we are helping someone learn their craft in a safe and controlled environment, and hopefully after enough repetition they can go out and do their job better.