Virtual Reality Companies Are Changing How Athletes See Practice

Toner kicks field goals on real-life fields while an unwieldy contraption — what appears to be six GoPros welded together into a 360 degree video camera — records by his shoulder. Then, Toner can relive kicks using a VR headset.

He converted 15 of his first 17 field goal attempts and all 33 extra points through eight games in his first season starting at Stanford.

As the N.C.A.A. and N.F.L. increasingly restrict the frequency of so-called hitting practices, virtual reality training is providing a contact-free way to keep players sharp.

“It’s one of the reasons STRIVR was so successful to begin with, especially in college teams,” says Shawnee Baughman, the company’s product manager. “I think the N.C.A.A. coaches are really excited to be able to use a tool that allows their players more practice without breaking practice regulation rules, fatiguing them or injuring them.”

For all the industry enthusiasm, VR’s record is rife with letdowns. Since the ’90s, almost every round of virtual reality hype has disappointed. Unresolved issues of motion sickness, fuzzy graphics and clunky equipment sabotaged almost any sense of “reality.” It simply wasn’t cool enough for its price.


VR programs have long been criticized for not feeling real enough. Companies have responded by using live video.

Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Today, VR once again demands the tech world’s attention, thanks to investments from Facebook, HTC, Valve and Samsung. Yet while VR costs are decreasing, it’s still not easy on budgets. Adopting STRIVR costs between $50,000 and $150,000; EON Sports’ products start at $5,000 and hit an undisclosed “much more than that” on the high end, according to chief executive Brendan Reilly. For pro sports programs, VR must prove more useful than a handful of interns or new weight room equipment.


Toner kicking a field goal against Washington State earlier this month. He made 15 of his first 17 attempts through eight games with Stanford this season, his first as a starter.

Young Kwak/Associated Press

For quarterbacks, VR is a decision-making incubator — a playbook with moving X’s and O’s. Before quarterbacks press play, their teammates are frozen, as if they’re in a personalized wax figure museum. A button clicks, and they bubble to life, jogging to predetermined positions. Quarterbacks train to spot defensive gaps and open receivers. Linemen train to spot blitzes, and safeties look for offensive tells.

In bird’s-eye game film, plays are simplified, and correct decisions appear obvious. In VR, each snap is a kaleidoscopic human puzzle, with every piece constantly shifting positions, glaring, deceiving.

“You can only get so much out of a traditional sideline anymore,” says Chas Petrone, Vanderbilt’s director of football video services, who also manages Vanderbilt’s sports VR. “You go down, you put the headset on and you’re almost going up against the defense again. It’s decreasing your reaction time and making you that much better on the field.”

The brain’s reflex center believes VR experience is real.

“It’s visualization times a million,” says Conrad Ukropina, Toner’s predecessor at Stanford. “Kicking is like golf. It’s like bowling. You want everything to be unconscious and muscle memory. The magic is the extra edge you can get.”

Ukropina cites his most famous play as an example of virtual reality’s subconscious effects. In 2015, against the prickly cold of Thanksgiving weekend in Palo Alto, Calif., Notre Dame scored with 30 seconds left, submerging Stanford, 36-35. Then the Cardinal drove to field goal range. A Rose Bowl appearance teetered in the balance.

“If we make it we win. If I miss it we lose,” Ukropina recalls thinking. “It was as big as a kick can get.”

The holder tapped the ground twice. The kick happened to mirror Ukropina’s most-practiced simulation kick: a 45-yard field goal, from the center of the field.

“It felt comfortable and looked familiar,” Ukropina says. “I didn’t think about it in the moment, but afterward I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it was literally identical.’ It started conscious and moved into unconscious because I’ve done it so many times.”

Ukropina’s kick threaded the uprights, and Stanford won, 38-36. Teammates hoisted him above the crowd as Cardinal fans flooded the field in red.

But the potential for VR performance training extends beyond athletics to more mundane activities.

In one simulation, it’s 5 a.m. in a Walmart vegetable aisle. An older woman — an actress — peruses the green peppers. First-time users wander around the store aimlessly, their eyes darting from frail, translucent produce bags to plastic carts brimming with butternut squash. They don’t know what they’re supposed to be looking for.

“The problem is in the bottom row,” Baughman, STRIVR’s product manager, explains, her voice floating into the vacuum like a movie narrator’s. The carrots and the celery are stacked too high, and no cold air can get to the bottom vegetables. Customers won’t want moldy carrots. If Walmart employees are to pass this test, they must catch the mistake.

In 10 years, virtual reality training could be everywhere — from kindergarten classrooms to NASA training centers.

For some, it’s underwhelming; the black-rimmed fantasy gear of childhood dreams has finally materialized, only to shave seconds off player reaction-times at a cost of thousands of dollars. Derek Belch, the chief executive of STRIVR, and Reilly recognize the need to find uses appealing to average people — the ones who could never hit a field goal in virtual reality, much less daily life.

“Eight months ago, no one would have been asking whether this was a fad, because there was so much coolness about it,” Reilly says. “Then there was this ‘Oh wait, once the hype wears off, why are we doing this? How can we measure real value?’”

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