Jet Toner, a kicker for Stanford, watches video of a team practice in the virtual reality room at the program’s training facility. CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times
Stanford kicker Jet Toner drags his right foot on the ground, then taps it twice. He looks down at the football in front of him and visualizes a line extending to the white poles 40 yards ahead.
Defensive players shake out their quads and bend into squats in front of him, their hamstrings screaming from the second practice of the day. Sweat darkens their practice jerseys. The holder crouches, pats the grass with two fingers — the “go ahead.”
Toner wiggles his right shoulder and turns his right wrist a few times, as he always does before field goal attempts. He tilts forward in anticipation, his eyes locked on the football. He exhales, springs lightly onto his left foot, and then takes two bounding hops before swinging a locked, pointed foot just below the holder’s fingers. He only narrowly avoids nailing his foot into the wall.
This is Stanford’s virtual reality training room: a little glass box above the locker room where a virtual reality headset — a foamy black box flanked by three limp elastic headbands — dangles midair, suspended by a thick black cord. A desktop computer displays VR footage simulations used by almost every player position. Toner picks a simulation, clicks “Play” and slides goggles down his face. Instantly, high definition pixels surge out of the black vacuum. His flip-flops melt into cleats; his brain believes he is back at practice. He can pivot 180 degrees and watch Coach David Shaw making clipboard tallies, or look straight ahead and count a lineman’s eyelashes.
This training VR is not animated — it’s real video.
“I was pretty blown away by how immersive it was,” Toner says. “I was hesitant it would be helpful. After using it I was like, ‘Wow, this is a whole different angle that you just don’t get when you’re watching a typical film with your coach.’”
By engaging with live video through a virtual reality headset, Jet Toner can practice kicking field goals for hours without ever touching a football. CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times
Since 2015, sports virtual reality has expanded beyond college football to become the sparkly new training toy for professional programs in the N.F.L., N.H.L., N.B.A., M.L.B. and Japanese baseball leagues. The industry pioneers — EON Sports VR and STRIVR — both grew out of college football. Shaw was one of the first coaches to adopt STRIVR in 2015 and is now an investor.
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 pointsthrough 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. CreditJim 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. CreditYoung 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?’”