It’s go­ing to to­tally change train­ing and prac­tices for ath­letes

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - SALLY JENK­INS

Vir­tual re­al­ity smells like sweat.

Or at least it did to me in the brief pe­riod I spent in that al­tered state, dur­ing which time I prac­tised sideline out-of-bounds plays with Wash­ing­ton Wizards rook­ies, shot some free throws with Ian Mahimni, and then wound up in Ver­i­zon Cen­ter tun­nel hud­dling and hold­ing hands with the en­tire squad just be­fore the tip.

The Ocu­lus Rift head­set pro­vided by the Wizards train­ing staff didn’t look like a uni­verse de­stroyer. It looked rather like some­thing a welder would wear, and weighed about as much as a child’s toy, only it was loaded with pro­pri­etary Vir­tual Re­al­ity tape from Wizards work­outs.

What no one can pre­pare you for is the ex­tent to which the de­vice al­ters space, lit­er­ally re­ar­ranges the ceil­ing and walls around you, and per­suades all of your senses. Within a few sec­onds your head starts whip­ping around like a tree­top in a high wind, fol­low­ing the flight of ex­is­ten­tial bas­ket­balls through space.

Next thing you know, your nose is con­vinced to go along with your eyes and ears, and starts telling you that you’re smelling the damp-towel, rub­ber-soled sneak­ery, lin­i­ment and hu­mid­ity musk that’s in ev­ery pro­fes­sional arena.

VR is still in its clumsy, crude, awk­ward, un­sharp­ened in­fancy — it’s not even close to where it’s go­ing to be.

Yet it’s al­ready star­tlingly clear that the tech­nol­ogy is go­ing to change the sports ex­pe­ri­ence for ev­ery­one, from player to spec­ta­tor. But it’s big­ger than that, re­ally. It’s go­ing to al­ter hu­man per­for­mance, pe­riod. Among other things, VR means the death of the play­book. So long to loose-leafed binders and two-di­men­sional game film. One day soon play­books will be loaded on VR de­vices, and this is how draft picks will learn their down screens and back cuts.

“It’s an in­evitabil­ity, if you will,” said Wizards owner Ted Leon­sis, who has made a big in­vest­ment in the tech­nol­ogy.

Leon­sis has been ahead of most fran­chise own­ers in im­port­ing VR for his teams — he has im­ple­mented it for the Wizards, Capitals and Mys­tics equally — be­cause of his be­lief that it’s go­ing to af­fect ev­ery­thing from com­pet­i­tive edge to player de­vel­op­ment to spec­ta­tor ex­pe­ri­ence. The con­vic­tion is grounded in his ex­pe­ri­ence at AOL, which orig­i­nated as a net­work that con­nected Atari gamers for whom VR was the grail.

The peo­ple most in­ter­ested in VR are no longer gamers. They are cam­pus lab re­searchers look­ing at ways to ap­ply VR to ev­ery­thing from sur­gi­cal train­ing to bridge build­ing. Which is how the Wizards came by their spe­cific sys­tem, which is called STRIVR. It orig­i­nated in the Vir­tual Hu­man In­ter­ac­tion Lab at Stan­ford Univer­sity, where Wizards team pres­i­dent Ernie Grun­feld’s son Danny was in school.

Danny knew a Stan­ford foot­ball team kicker and grad­u­ate as­sis­tant named Derek Belch who stud­ied in the lab. Belch and his pro­fes­sor-men­tor Jeremy Bailen­son founded STRIVR to ex­plore a host of new ap­pli­ca­tions of “im­mer­sive per­for­mance train­ing,” us­ing Stan­ford’s foot­ball team as their guinea pigs. Danny Grun­feld brought STRIVR to his fa­ther and Leon­sis, who promptly im­ple­mented it. STRIVR’s clients now in­clude seven NFL teams, three NBA teams, one ma­jor league base­ball team, 14 col­le­giate pro­grams and the U.S. ski team. All of them are toy­ing with the STRIVR sys­tem in dif­fer­ent ways, but they’re af­ter the same thing: per­for­mance en­hance­ment.

Be­hind any good per­for­mance is con­di­tion­ing: repet­i­tive prac­tice, in real con­di­tions that force the brain and body to re­act, and de­cide. “You can’t deny that do­ing some­thing more of­ten helps when it comes to de­ci­sion-mak­ing,” Belch said. The trou­ble is that the body can only tol­er­ate so much prac­tice be­fore it be­gins to wear down. VR is a po­ten­tial so­lu­tion to that. Ath­letes can get un­lim­ited reps in the most re­al­is­tic en­vi­ron­ment pos­si­ble, even ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some of the same stress, just by us­ing the gog­gles.

But VR’s larger im­pact is in speed­ing up learn­ing. How hu­mans learn is com­plex neu­ro­science, but one thing we do know is that a hi­er­ar­chy of ex­pe­ri­ences leads to greater re­ten­tion. Re­search shows that gen­er­ally, peo­ple re­tain about 10 per cent of what they read, but can re­mem­ber more than 40 per cent of what they watch and lis­ten to. VR pro­po­nents have taken that con­cept and sprinted with it in the sports realm.

They have demon­strated that when it comes to any ac­tion that in­volves body co-or­di­na­tion, full im­mer­sion learn­ing is mea­sur­ably bet­ter. Belch’s men­tor Bailen­son did a study in which he com­pared learn­ing tai chi in im­mer­sive VR to a tra­di­tional two-di­men­sional in­struc­tional video. Those who learned from VR per­formed bet­ter in ev­ery sin­gle phase of the ex­per­i­ment. Ac­cord­ing to STRIVR, teams can im­prove “rec­ol­lec­tion of key con­cepts by 30 per cent.”

To fran­chise own­ers and gen­eral man­agers wor­ried about de­vel­op­ing ex­pen­sive young draft picks, “That’s very pow­er­ful,” Leon­sis said. It struck Leon­sis that teams were han­dling their young play­ers such as Kelly Oubre, tech savvy and liv­ing his life on the In­ter­net play­ing egames, all wrong.

“You draft play­ers in the NBA where the kid goes to col­lege for one year and then you put him on your team, and in the old days you’d give him a loose-leaf book with words and scrib­bles,” Leon­sis said. “It looked like ge­om­e­try home­work. And you’d say, ‘Well, you’re a rookie and we’ve al­ready got starters and back­ups and you’re not go­ing to par­tic­i­pate very much, you’ll do a lit­tle in prac­tice.’ And then we ex­pect these play­ers to get it. And why would we ex­pect that when we’re not even teach­ing them the right way?”

STRIVR is now us­ing its clients to help amass quan­tifi­able ev­i­dence on how the sys­tem im­pacts learn­ing. Re­ports and data are start­ing to trickle in. The Detroit Pis­tons’ Andre Drum­mond cor­rected his free throw form last sea­son with STRIVR, and he upped his rate by a lit­tle more than 10 per cent. Teams re­port that it’s use­ful as a “slump buster,” a form of vi­su­al­iza­tion to the 100-proof that al­lows play­ers to feel them­selves mak­ing shots in­stead of miss­ing them. Quar­ter­backs such as Car­son Palmer re­port up­ping their ef­fi­ciency by us­ing it to rec­og­nize and re­act to blitz pack­ages.

“We want to be able to tell a head coach that if you put that fresh­man or rookie or vet in there for eight min­utes a day, four days a week for a month, they will be X per cent more likely to re­tain the info,” said Belch. In high per­for­mance sports where the mar­gins can be frac­tional be­tween win­ning and los­ing, that could be a real dif­fer­ence maker.

But with new power comes new com­pli­ca­tions. Who owns the rights, who gets how much of the rev­enue? What will peo­ple pay for it? What does it do to tele­vi­sion? These are ac­tu­ally just the mi­nor com­pli­ca­tions. More im­por­tantly, what does it do to the peo­ple who use it? Ex­am­ple: Cel­lu­lar phones have all but killed our need to re­mem­ber phone num­bers. “That’s a small phe­nom­e­non, but it’s chang­ing the way our brains are wired on mem­ory and re­call,” Leon­sis said. When it comes to sus­tained use of highly de­vel­oped VR, “We don’t know what the un­in­tended con­se­quence is,” he adds.

Ap­ply­ing VR to hu­man sports per­for­mance is not a triv­ial un­der­tak­ing. The ap­pli­ca­tions are po­ten­tially pro­found, across all oc­cu­pa­tions. STRIVR has a cor­po­rate train­ing arm for cri­sis man­age­ment, and di­ver­sity train­ing: It can put some­one in the shoes of a per­son of colour and show how oth­ers re­act to them in the work­place. It’s prob­a­ble that chem­istry stu­dents will learn struc­ture by step­ping inside mol­e­cules.

But there are a lot of things that VR still can’t do. The focus isn’t yet sharp and the viewer can’t ex­pe­ri­ence full range of mo­tion, be­cause of some­thing called vec­tion, which is a form of car sick­ness. Ba­si­cally, when your head and body do two dif­fer­ent things, the hu­man sys­tem doesn’t like it and pro­duces nau­sea. It can only re­pro­duce re­al­ity from a static po­si­tion, which is use­ful for a quar­ter­back read­ing op­tions off de­fences, or study­ing your shooting form at the free throw line, but not for dy­namic move­ment.

Which leads to the most in­trigu­ing part of all of this: the ex­plo­ration of where we stand in the com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the hu­man and the ma­chine. For now, we’re still in a place to dis­cuss hu­man su­pe­ri­or­ity. VR is just a mul­ti­fac­eted cam­era linked to a pow­er­ful com­puter plat­form. The great strengths of com­put­ers are the speed and ac­cu­racy with which they process in­for­ma­tion and solve equa­tions. But what they lack is judg­ment and flex­i­bil­ity — when it comes to those qual­i­ties, the hu­man head out­strips de­vices. VR can’t teach John Wall’s brand of lead­er­ship, or Bradley Beal’s shape-shift­ing creativ­ity. It can only pho­to­graph them, and show it back to us, to cel­e­brate, and mar­vel at. It can’t make nar­ra­tive art, which is re­ally what all games are.

“There’s an in­evitabil­ity,” Leon­sis re­peated.

“But will a com­puter be able to write a book that moves you? Will it be able to paint a pic­ture or make a piece of art that moves you? That’s re­ally the ques­tion.”

In the old days, you’d give (a rookie) a loose-leaf book with words and scrib­bles. It looked like ge­om­e­try home­work.


The Wash­ing­ton Wizards, Capitals and Mys­tics are us­ing vir­tual re­al­ity as a train­ing tool.


Wear­ing gog­gles and head­phones, bas­ket­ball play­ers get a 360-de­gree vir­tual re­al­ity view of the court.

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