In recent years, the issue of concussions and other head blows in American football has been a major concern. So common are high-velocity head impacts in the USA's favorite sport that they have been shown to be the cause of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that can only be properly diagnosed post-mortem. Symptoms include memory loss, anxiety, headaches, and depression, having (in some cases) a severe detrimental effect on the quality of life of retired players. Understandably, this revelation is causing some to be reluctant to get into the sport, and there are a number of companies looking to develop new headwear or methods that can mitigate the risk.
Running alongside this research and concern has been the development of virtual reality (VR) and the realization of its potential impact on sports as an industry. Not only will it offer broadcasters alternative ways to bring live sports to fans, but it will have a serious affect on how players train. The ability to put players in close to real-world situations instantly could streamline how players develop their decision making, their reflexes, and even their technique. Given the incredible size of the sports technology market, there are a number of companies looking to win the race for genuinely useful VR hardware and software for sports teams.
One of these companies is the plainly named Sports Virtual Training Systems (Sports VTS). Set up with the express purpose of protecting quarterbacks from unnecessary injury or collision, Sports VTS has created an on-pitch simulator that can be used to train younger quarterbacks without exposing them to dangerous situations. Ted Sundquist, former general manager of the Denver Broncos, told SportTechie where the original idea for his QBSIM system came from: the training of pilots. 'And these simulators were so realistic, it was as if the pilots were sitting in the actual cockpit,' Sundquist told SportTechie. 'And that’s what you need — you need them to be under the same pressures and situations and scenarios that they would face if they were up in the air flying a multi-billion dollar aircraft.'
If the technology is sophisticated enough, products like QBSIM will be able to put athletes through the repetition of movement and decision-making necessary to develop and become more composed on the field. Rather than having the defense tirelessly reset and present different problems over and over for the benefit of one star player, coaches can put their assets into a room with a headset and a football. The ball is tracked my motion sensors so that the athlete can look at and review their pass arcs and accuracy, as well as have their decision-making scrutinized and improved. Ultimately, by using VR over traditional methods, the risk to both the quarterback and the chasing defense is reduced, and no one even has to face the elements.
Important in QBSIM's development was the ability to move around without being tethered to a computer (as is the case with many commercial VR devices). So, Sundquist and his team were forced to create their own hardware as well as software. 'I don’t know any other way to train a quarterback if he’s not allowed to actually move around the pocket and to actually throw a real football,' he told SportTechie. 'And if you can build that mind-body-muscle memory and get them to react under stressful situations, just like we do with pilots in the cockpit in simulation training, then I think you’re onto something and that’s exactly what we’re doing.'
A better-known company also interested in VR's ability to prevent and mitigate injury is STRIVR. The company's immersive VR platform is used for training and various on-the-job applications, with customers as varied as VISA, Walmart, Google, Pepsi, PNC, as well as those in sports, with everyone from the NFL to the German soccer association using the technology to improve their players.
STRIVR CEO Derek Belch explained how his company's technology helps injured athletes retain their sharpness during their recovery: 'We’ve seen guys that couldn’t practice because of injury come into VR and put the headset on and actually go through [their] footwork at 10% speed. [They] really get that one-tenth of the physical rep, but 100% of the mental rep. That mental edge is oftentimes what separates the pros from the Joes.' With the use of VR, the whole notion of 'match sharpness' - a time-consuming part of the injury recovery process - could be mitigated. STRIVR uses real-world 360 video to build its training scenarios, where QBSIM's display is computer rendered. The latter arguably provides greater flexibility despite its comparative lack of realism, and it will be interesting to see if Sports VTS can challenge the established likes of STRIVR going forward.
However the competition pans out, there is little doubt that an uptick in the use of VR in football training will lead to fewer concussions across the sport. If the risk of serious head collision was limited to game days and more necessary training sessions, players in important positions like quarterback could be protected. The idea that mental sharpness can be trained without unnecessary or risky physical exertion could be quite easily spread to other sports and, indeed, other areas of business entirely. It also solves the issue of some real-world elements of jobs being incredibly difficult or expensive to recreate for training purposes - most obvious in professions like aviation, which inspired Sundquist and co. Sport's willingness to embrace new technology often has a ripple effect across big business at large. The eager use of VR for safe, repetitive training will likely be no different.