Patriots poised to enhance practice with virtual reality technology
MENLO PARK, Calif. — When Patriots training camp opens next week, the coaches won’t be the only ones on the field tracking Tom Brady and his teammates during practices.
A 360-degree camera will be positioned near the quarterback to capture footage from his point of view. Later, off the field, players will wear headsets resembling oversized ski goggles to review the workout in a virtual reality environment, where turning their head lets them look around the field and see plays unfold the way the quarterback does.
The Patriots are expected to be the third NFL team to work with STRIVR Labs, a Silicon Valley company that develops immersive sports experiences, two sources with direct knowledge of the team’s plans confirmed.
“The message we tell all coaches is we’re not trying to replace traditional film watching,” said STRIVR founder Derek Belch, a former kicker and assistant coach at Stanford, who first tested virtual football training at his alma mater.
“We’re trying to provide a complementary tool that we feel can be effective in training and helping players learn faster. We’ve had a lot of people tell us this is going to be everywhere over the next two or three years,” he said.
The Cowboys and 49ers, along with programs at Arkansas, Auburn, Clemson, Dartmouth, Stanford, and Vanderbilt, started working with STRIVR this year. In the coming months, the company — at the moment, the only virtual reality firm working with NFL clubs to create footage with real players, not avatars — expects to add a dozen or more pro teams and at least 10 colleges to its roster.
Belch founded STRIVR earlier this year with Jeremy Bailenson, who is also director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Now they are working with the early clients to determine what is possible with virtual reality training and what works best for different teams.
At the company’s headquarters, Belch’s brother Danny, a Harvard Business School student, gives a visitor the same demonstration STRIVR brought to the 2015 NFL Combine and showed 10 head coaches and Broncos general manager John Elway.
While wearing the virtual reality headset, a visitor can watch a Stanford practice from the quarterback’s perspective. Look left and right and watch players settling into position. Turn around and you see a coach leaning forward, hands on knees, ready to blow a whistle to start play. When the whistle blows, wide receivers run downfield, turn toward you and wait for a pass. Again, you turn around, but this time a running back rushes by. It looks, feels, and sounds like you are on the field.
“With everyone that’s seen it hasn’t been, ‘Wow, I can see someday that’s going to work,’ ” said Bailenson. “It’s been, ‘We need to have this yesterday.’ For the NFL, in particular, where so much matters with decision-making and viewpoints, it’s a really important application.”
For nearly a decade, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema had seen a lot of pitches for virtual reality products. But he said, “They were really nothing more than a glorified video game.” Then STRIVR came along.
“When I watched what Derek had put together, I thought, ‘This is going to change the game of football as we know it,’ ” said Bielema. “It’s human beings. It’s you in a huddle. It’s your voice. It’s your script. It’s your set up. That set it apart from everything else I’d ever seen. It escalates the learning curve beyond exponential numbers. It’s absolutely amazing what it can do for a young player.”
STRIVR clients such as Arkansas and Dartmouth have found virtual training particularly helpful for quarterbacks, who can get mental reps when they can’t get physical reps on the field. Also, coaches can see the action from their quarterback’s eyes and realize why he may be struggling with a particular play.
“We can analyze what people are looking at,” said Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens. “So, on an offensive pass play, if a quarterback continually looks the wrong way, maybe we think twice about having that play in his repertoire. You can coach off of that.”
Quarterbacks also benefit from a fresh perspective that goes beyond virtually reviewing plays. With the technology, a quarterback can dissect his practice performance more thoroughly. He can turn right or left and study his throwing mechanics. He can shift his focus downward and analyze his footwork. That’s something Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo likes to do, Belch said.
Bielema hopes the technology will help more than the Razorbacks’ signal-callers.
“Your biggest dream as a coach is to have every one of your players know as much as you know,” said Bielema. “That is very seldom met. It’s a very rare quality to make that happen. But if you can get a younger player to take in the volume of reps that makes you get there as coach, by doing it the exact same way without having to call a practice, that is worth it’s weight in gold.”
Bielema and Teevens have thought about how the STRIVR system could help other positions. In the spring, Dartmouth experimented with different camera placements for positions on offense and defense. Teevens also sees value in using virtual reality to familiarize players with opponents’ tactics.
Meanwhile, Bielema likes to watch plays develop from certain places — the front side of a throw versus the backside, a wide angle versus a narrow angle. So he has talked with Belch about possible enhancements to the STRIVR system. And Bielema believes his input will make the product work better.
“Anything is going to get better with time with the more you’re able to see what you want,” said Bielema. “I wanted to get in on the front end because, if you can get in on the front end and work through the issues that you have, it’s only going to make it better. So, I think I’ll make it a better product the sooner I get involved with it. That’s not cockiness, just confidence.”
Belch emphasized that he welcomes feedback from all clients. Soon, that number will include, Brady, Bill Belichick, and the rest of the Patriots.