Virtual reality becomes an NFL reality

NFL teams are buying into how virtual reality systems can help them develop players.

Virtual reality is now NFL reality.

Several NFL teams have begun using various systems of virtual reality to help enhance their post-practice time with players. So how does it work?

A 360-degree video camera mounted on an easily movable tripod records the action of a play in practice. When practice is done, the fun – and learning – begins.

Back in meeting rooms, players can then select a play, put on a pair of goggles and virtually immerse themselves in the play. For example, if the camera was set up behind a quarterback, the goggles would show the 360-degree view of the play from the quarterback’s perspective. Look straight ahead with the goggles on and you see the offensive line and the defense, helping a quarterback diagnose what blitzes might be coming or how to shift protection. Turn around with the goggles on and you see the running back(s) lined up in the backfield. Look left to determine what kind of coverage a receiver on that side of the field might be getting, and so on.

“It’s a little bit the jury is still out, but I think with the age of guys that we have now and the video games and all the things that they have, Teddy (Bridgewater) really liked it when he saw it,” said Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer. “People we’ve talked to, they really like it. It’s really another way for them to get a bunch of reps.”

The Vikings are getting used to the technology provided by STRIVR, a Silicon Valley-based company founded by former Stanford kicker Derek Belch.

The San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks are among those that have reportedly used the technology in recent months. The company is keeping its client list private until teams address it publicly, but in addition to the NFL teams acknowledging its use, STRIVR has at least nine NCAA teams using it in one form or another.

The Buccaneers are using a different system than the Vikings, going with the Sidekiq software developed by EON Sports, figuring it could help in the development of rookie quarterback Jameis Winston.

“We are excited to be coming in on the front end of this new wave of technology that is designed to supplement the on-field and classroom work that our quarterbacks are already doing,” Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht told ESPN. “Obviously, there is no real substitute for being on the field when it comes to getting our players ready for game action. However, this virtual-reality technology allows us to enhance the learning experience for our quarterbacks without requiring them to put in additional time on the practice fields.”

Bridgewater has talked in the past about using the Madden football games to help prepare him before he was immersed into NFL practices, but Zimmer wasn’t sure how much benefit that provided. The Vikings coach sees much more value using the virtual reality system.

“This is realistic. It really is realistic. He can actually turn around and watch himself throw the ball and watch his footwork, where the arm is and all that stuff,” Zimmer said of Bridgewater. “… It’s 360. It sees everything.”

The Vikings don’t have the camera on the field throughout practices, realizing it is likely to be knocked over in the live portions of full-team practices (it already has been trucked over at least once by a running back looking to pick up a blitz). However, having the technology has changed some of the structure of practices.

“We did a blitz period to kind of see. We told the guy blitzing to stop just we could see, kind of wrap this thing around in our minds,” Zimmer said. “Honestly, I think it could be good for the offensive line. I was watching it. If you put it where the center is, you could see the movement of the defense, the calls that you have to make, where the people have to slide to for the protection.”

Zimmer called the system “impressive” and admitted that they were “messing around a little bit with it” early to discover the different applications that could be implemented with it.

As a Stanford alumnus, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was happy to see it implemented in Indianapolis’ training camp.

“It was real fascinating to see the technology,” Luck told after Monday morning’s walk-through practice at Anderson University training camp. “As a Stanford alum, proud that something like that is taking place in the football department in the football virtual reality lab there, but it was really cool, really cool to see.”

The biggest advantage comes after practice. While it helps the starters, it also gives every player the ability to see every snap as if it were happening live. Backup quarterbacks whose snaps in practices may be limited now have a chance after practice to “virtually” take every snap that was recorded with the camera in practice.

Quarterback Shaun Hill entered the NFL in 2002 and said Beta tape was still in use at that time. For years now, players have been getting every play on their tablets. Virtual reality, however, has brought the future into the present around the NFL.

“Following its implementation last year, we received tremendous feedback from our coaching staff and players,” Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said in a recent team release. “Preparation is a critical factor for success in our sport so it made perfect sense to team up with the Army, an organization that truly epitomizes preparedness. This program utilizes the same technology that our brave servicemen and women use to prepare themselves when they are called to action. I believe this ‘app’ can help revolutionize the way coaches at any level across the country prepare and develop their players for the gridiron.”

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