With software from Rezzil and Incisiv Sport, soccer players are strapping on VR headsets to hone their skills and train safely while recovering from injuries.
There are some moments in soccer that only happen once in a lifetime: Diego Maradona's "Goal of the Century," for example, or The Miracle of Istanbul. While it's great to be a player with the skills to pull off such feats, what if you're on the other team? And can technology train new players to achieve the same feats?
Enter virtual reality, which creates a controlled environment in which players hone their skills and train safely while recovering from injuries, and where goalkeepers take the same shot again and again until they can save it every time.
One of the companies developing this technology is Rezzil, which is powered by MiHiepa and in use by Vincent Kompany, captain of English club Manchester City, as well as members of Manchester United and Italian club Juventus.
Rezzil works via the HTC Vive Pro headset, alongside several Vive Trackers attached to shoes and shin guards in order to monitor the position of the players' feet and legs. The player puts them on and the drills begin. In one, a virtual ball shoots toward a player who needs to kick it into one of six goals lit up around him. In another, virtual players who resemble toy army men pop up around the human soccer player, who has to kick the ball as quickly as possible to CGI team members, without it being intercepted by an opposing player.
The training sessions feel realistic; virtual balls have the weight and dynamics of real ones. The brain then fills in the gaps with a kind of VR placebo effect.
The virtual field can match weather conditions, friction, or the skid of wet grass, according to Adam Dickenson, Development Director at Rezzil, which is intriguing since you can't exactly summon a rainstorm in order to practice on slippery conditions in the real world.
"We can also change out textures pulled from the OPTA [Sports] data, [like] player heights. As much as possible we pull that information from existing data [that] clubs use and become an aggregator for it," Dickenson said.
These different drills are also a good test of a players' mental attitude, which is especially useful when clubs are trying out new, younger players who might be talented but simply go through the motions with their coaches without truly engaging with what they're doing.
Sports Director Andy Etches said Rezzil developed specific drills based on perception and decision making in order to test these abilities, because it's "not just about moving the head; the crucial thing is that the player sees things and makes decisions based on that."
For younger players, it also helps them get up to speed with the pressures of playing in a huge stadium, with the cheering of fans in their ears.
With a combination of head- and eye-tracking technologies, Rezzil software lets coaches add match scenarios, false pressure, and distractions. Biometric markers can also spot rare talent and give coaches the tools they need to build up mental resilience so players perform better in real games.
It's also fun, of course. Rezzil VR supports a number of environments, so players aren't stuck on a traditional pitch inside those VR headsets.
Don't Forget the Goalkeepers
Incisiv Sport, founded by Ulster University Professor Cathy Craig, is beta testing Clean Sheet, a VR program designed to recreate potentially impossible shots.
Craig's background in psychology allowed her to take a different approach with regards to tracking a flight path. "Whilst all the mathematicians and physicists were modeling the ball's flight path with their fancy equations, I asked a more simple question. What does this mean for a goalkeeper? Is a ball that bends more difficult for a goalkeeper to read, and if so why?"
To present the kicks from a first-person perspective, virtual reality became the optimal tool to control precisely what the brain sees and how a player decides to respond. For a goalkeeper, soccer is a game of anticipation. According to FIFA, midfielders move nearly three times as much as goalkeepers during a match; but when goalkeepers do move, it's a make-or-break moment.
As such, technologies like Clean Sheet allow coaches to generate any kind of unlikely goals (such as Roberto Carlos' free kick, which first attracted Craig's attention over 20 years ago) to test trajectories. Where the ball is kicked from, where foot contact is made, the elevation height of the ball, and the power or force with which the ball is kicked are fed into the physics engine before the ball is sent flying toward the goalkeeper.
Clean Sheet is starting to yield interesting results that teach goalies how and when to react. For curved free kicks, for example, it's better for a goalkeeper to wait longer and get a greater handle on the direction of the ball before responding, rather than leaping into action as you might when trying to stop a penalty kick.
With so much data being gathered about professional players, it's important that it remains anonymous lest one team, desperate to be on top, trains their goalkeeper on a striker's most common shot. Every team has access to their team's own data, but if a player leaves the team, the data is anonymized and becomes part of Incisiv Sport's database. This is how the company lets coaches know, as Craig was asked a few weeks ago when visiting a premiership club, "whether my £10 million goalkeeper is any good or not."
n the future, the variety of data gathered could increase dramatically. Craig predicts that smaller headsets and haptic systems that simulate contact with objects in a more realistic way will be the next big development. By using AI, developers will also create "intelligent avatars who respond like elite athletes, [which] could have differing qualities that then allows them to defend or attack in specific ways."
Perhaps the next Jan Oblak will be discovered with an HTC Vive on his head.