The Seahawks are one of a handful of NFL teams taking a trial-run with a virtual reality system called STRIVR, a tool to aid in coaching and development of their quarterback, says Rob Rang over at SeahawksFootball.com. The company put on a presentation for NFL clubs at the Combine and has found new clients in the Cowboys, Buccaneers and 49ers. It wouldn't be super surprising if it catches on elsewhere as well.
The company is headed by Derek Belch, a former Stanford kicker and current quality control coach there who did his Master's thesis in Stanford's virtual reality program. According to Rang,
The Seahawks have not yet formally introduced the virtual reality component to the public but Carroll was seen during offseason workouts directing a camera man onto the field. The footage taken should provide the coaching staff and players with a new perspective.
The idea is simple -- give quarterbacks the ability to augment real practice with an exponential increase in "mental" reps while making those reps as realistic as possible. The system is a headset that goes over the player's head and eyes and gives them a virtual reality view of the field, a first-person view of the linemen in front of them, the defense behind them, and all from the point of view that a quarterback would have in a real game situation. In theory, the team can then program in a multitude of defensive looks that help the quarterback develop the ability to recognize alignments and change the play based on what he's seeing. This is, potentially, a huge upgrade over the sky-cam shots of the field from an overhead perspective.
Of course, the implementation of this idea was a whole other thing. According to this great look at the system by Bruce Feldman, many of the top technology companies in the industry have been working on VR, viewed by many as the future of gaming and, well, a lot of things, including business and the military, but progress has been relatively slow. One issue that all the companies have run into, interestingly, is trying to figure out how to avoid giving the user nausea or seasickness while in the virtual reality space. Those issues have apparently been worked out.
Stanford Head Coach David Shaw is a major investor in the program because he saw how it could help his team. "It was the first time I could actually visualize something like that," Shaw told Feldman. "I was like, 'Wow, if we could actually put quarterbacks in a virtual world so we're not using extra practice reps, we're not extending practice at all — we're not messing with the 20-hour work week, we're just creating a library of things for a QB to learn something, that'd help your backup QB who's never gonna get as many reps as a starter and helps your starter get three reps on a play that he screwed up on and he can just watch the same thing over and over again and see everybody and feel like he's there.' When Derek started explaining it to me, I got really excited."
Stanford QB Kevin Hogan helped with the development of the STRIVR system, and helped the creators tweak it so it would be the most useful to the player.
"They made it so it aligns with our cadence. We said, 'Let's call the play and get out of our huddle. We only have 25 seconds to run the play. Go through dummy cadences. Let's make it as realistic as possible.' When you're watching on film you have a birds-eye view from the sky. It's hard to see if they're leaning one way or the other. But with this, when you're going through your cadence and start to go through your dummy count, you can see the safety start to creep up a little bit. That's an indicator. When you're just watching film, you don't get the sound, you don't get that real-life feel of the game. With this, I can see what the structure is."
Pretty amazing, in theory.
Importantly, the system is a major time saver for both the college and pro systems. Obviously, in college, players are limited by how much time they can practice. The new CBA in the NFL has had a similar effect. Reps are absolutely invaluable, and most of the time, starters get about 90% of them. This system could help backups develop. The sky really is the limit with this technology. It's still in the early development stage, but is already getting streamlined, per that Feldman article.
Shaw thinks that eventually, it will be with every NFL team. As he said,
"Every NFL QB that's seen it has been blown away and said, 'I want this. It's better than watching film. It's better than sitting on my iPad where I can kinda see but I really can't see it. With this I feel like I'm getting better.' That's the one demographic where it's been 100 percent, and if you follow anything in the NFL, you're gonna follow the money. If you're going to pay a guy $100 million and you have to spend another couple hundred thousand to help him do his job better, you're going to do it to make that first investment pay off."
It's no surprise that the Seahawks are one of a few teams that are reportedly giving this system a go. The implementation could be tricky at first -- it requires that quite a bit of footage be taken at practice, in order to give the player a 360-degree view of the field -- but the benefits are potentially enormous. We'll see if it's something that Pete Carroll adopts full-time.