State of the Hogs: Virtual Reality

The Razorbacks are going to be into virtual reality games in a big way starting next week. Bret Bielema revealed that his staff is investing in new techology.

It’s been well documented that college kids play a lot of virtual reality games. They are going to play quite a bit more in the coming weeks in the Arkansas football offices.

Arkansas coach Brett Bielema announced that the new software being introduced by a Stanford group was worked into the last week of spring football drills. Bruce Feldman wrote an in-depth feature at Fox Sports on the new software developed by Jeremy Bailenson and Derek Belch. Google Feldman and VR to understand it deeply.

Bielema said a 10-year-old relationship made it possible for the Razorbacks to be one of two SEC teams to get the VR software. It’s only been on the market for a matter of days. Bielema thinks it’s going to be a huge part of football, a possible game changer. It reminded him of the time when he was a grad assistant when computer software was introduced to categorize plays digitally.

“This is virtual reality stuff, like the Madden game,” Bielema said. “But it puts your real body in there, and your teams’ real plays. You put on goggles and it comes to life for you.

“I think it’s going to help quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs, the defensive secondary and linebackers. It takes me back to when I was coaching linebackers and we used something called eyes of the mike (linebacker).”

There is going to be a “limited release” of the product this spring. Bielema counts himself fortunate that athletic director Jeff Long will commit to the funds and the relationship was there with the inventors.

Long admits that he was cautious about what was a big purchase price when first approached, but was all in once he put on the goggles and saw the software uses.

“We are responsible with our funds,” Long said. “But it was instant for me how it would help our program. It was stunning. It made sense and it was clear.

“I put on the goggles as the quarterback. I saw everything happen in front, you turn and see the running backs. It’s all right there. Invaluable is the way I see it. I agreed with Bret that we needed it.

“The thing that made it easy is that Bret doesn’t ask for much. When he does, he shows you a way to save in another area. If you are the athletic director, it makes it easy when he does ask. He’s unlike any other coach in the way he handles our budget.”

Bielema heard about the technology from Mark Taurisani, the UA’s director of football operations. There were connections at Stanford through Taurisani and through Bielema.

“I crossed paths with someone 10 years ago,” Bielema said. “How you handle people in the past does impact how they treat you in the future.”

The final version of the Virtual Reality software with the Arkansas adaption won’t be ready for a couple of weeks. Bielema was excited about the process after spring drills were completed. Everyone who tried on the goggles raved about it.

“It was awesome,” he said. “We got a lot of people in there. Our AD even put a hat on and thought he was back in his glory days … as a HOLDER.

“But it’s really mind boggling. You put it on and it just blows you away. You feel like you’re in a huddle. You’re the quarterback, you’re the mike linebacker, you’re the strong safety. So we sent that film away. We did a lot of filming on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.”

Bielema came up with some interesting twists to use the VR technology.

“We also did it for recruiting,” he said. “So we go in the stadium and we show the stadium. We went in the weight room when our guys were in a weight room session. We went into the training table when they were in there eating.

“We took them in to each one of the individual meeting rooms, so Sam Pittman has an offensive lineman in from Texas and even though we’re not in a meeting session, he can put those on and he feels like he’s just sitting there in Sam Pittman’s O-line meeting room.

“We did it for all the quarterbacks, WRs, RBs, LBs, every position. Just it’s an unbelievable gift that Jeff gave us the ability to purchase and we’re going to take full advantage of it.”

Stanford head coach David Shaw invested $50,000 when Belch, his former GA, decided to form a business and develop it with Bailenson, a Stanford professor and one of the leaders in virtual reality research and brain functions in that field.

“We will invest some time in it next week, probably a major part of our Tuesday and some Thursday,” Bielema said. “We have a high priority on this next week.”

Belch said it won’t take long for all elite level college programs to get on board with the VR stuff. All NFL teams will have it, too. How far it trickles down to the high school level is not sure, because it promises to be expensive.

Defensive coordinator Robb Smith said he’s not been keen on the amount of time his kids spend on virtual reality video games in the home game room. He said he was glad spring has arrived to get them out of the house.

“When we were in Tampa, our kids were outside all year long,” he said. “So I’m glad we are at this time of year where we are going to get outside more. I know our players love video games, too, but what we are going to give them now is a little beyond that with this technology.”

Smith wants his players to be inside this summer with the new VR software.

“I’m excited,” he said. “We were pleased with what we got done this afternoon and I can’t wait to come back tonight and look at it again. And, for the morning, we should have it ready for players to look at through the goggles.

“We went through a 21-play script today against formations and plays. It should give our linebackers and secondary the opportunity to see Virtual Reality in a 360 degree look. I know it’s going to be amazing for a teaching tool, development over the summer. It’s like getting rep after rep in practice. It’s a chance for our freshmen to see what they’ll see in practice in the fall. There are lots of applications.

“I put the goggles on earlier this week. It’s amazing. I got to see things the way our players see it. What a teaching tool. I think the communication tools will be huge. We’ll make cutups and eventually build a great simulator. It’s like a flight simulator for a pilot. I see a broad spectrum of uses for it and we have to take advantage of it. We are working hard to utilize it in a big way.”

The word on the street before Belch and his crew arrived on campus was that it was a quarterback’s dream. Quarterback Brandon Allen called it “trippy” in several interviews. He can’t wait until the finished product returns from the west coast.

“They are going to take back all of the tape and make it virtual,” Allen said. “It’s going to enable us to get mental reps like a practice, or really a game, all summer. It’s real trippy.”

Enos wasn’t sure about “trippy.” He called it, “Pretty cool.” As a quarterback coach, Enos said it is a dream come true.

“When I first heard about it a couple of months ago, I was amazed,” he said. “I didn’t really know what it was, but I was all in. I couldn’t wait to see it. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m amazed. And, I know it’s something that’s going to continue to evolve. There are so many positives for young players.

“I see how it’s going to help us in reading defenses, picking up blitzes, just so many ways you can use it.”

It was advertised as bigger for quarterbacks, backs, receivers, defensive backs and linebackers and not so much help for offensive and defensive linemen. Pittman, the offensive line coach, begs to differ.

“No, I think our guys will use it, too,” he said. “I think it’s going to beneficial for our offensive linemen, to recognize the safety coming down. Oh, yeah, I like it for offensive line guys, too.”

Enos said it’s a way to get repetitions with no coaches around. It’s perfect for the summer development time when the NCAA prevents coaches from tutoring players.

“What I expect it to really help us with us with is when coaches are not around,” Enos said. “The guys can go in a room and it’s going to be like a practice. The players will get unlimited reps. The way I see it, when I put on the goggles, it’s game like. It will benefit us in season and in the summer.”

The players are just figuring it out. While players like Allen have sampled it with goggles and head sets on, some are just getting the good word.

“I have not tried it yet,” said Jared Cornelius, sophomore wide receiver. “Coach (Bret) Bielema told me about it a few weeks ago in a meeting. It’s going to be really something. I have not put on the goggles, but we understand what we are getting. It’s exciting to know that we will have a tool like that, as one of the first college teams to own it. We know it’s going to give us an advantage and we are going to utilize it as much as possible.”

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