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Virtual reality is the new reality of film study


Credit: USA Today

I have seen the future of college football film study. It's a future so bright, you have to wear goggles to see it.

Sitting in the bottom floor of San Antonio's Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center earlier this month, I joined the small but growing community exposed to STRIVR Labs' revolutionary virtual reality technology. To best understand STIVR's take on VR, perhaps it's best to explain what it's not.

Think reality, not virtual.

When most imagine VR, their brain conjures up an image equal parts futuristic technology and 1980's music video. This is neither. It's, for example, real Stanford players running real Stanford plays through a real Stanford practice, viewed through a 360-degree, first-person perspective.

"It's not a video game," said STRIVR co-founder and CEO Derek Belch. "This is not something that you can flip a switch and it works, or you can just draw some lines on a screen and then someone goes and runs that route. That's not how it works. We actually go and film stuff on the field.

"People aren't expecting live, immersive video. I think most people conjure up the idea of computer graphics, a computer game, as what virtual reality is, and that's what has really separated us from a lot of our competitors to this point," added STRIVR football operations rep Edward Park.

STRIVR uses an Oculus headset combined with proprietary software it says gives the company a leg up on its competition.

It's not a GoPro -- and that's a good thing

In one example I saw, a STRIVR tripod stood next to Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan -- not a camera attached to his helmet. The distinction is an important one, as it allows coaches and players to view not what the player in question saw, but everything he could have seen.

"We do a ton of teaching with it," Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren said. "You can do a lot in the third person, where you're sitting there watching it from the vantage point of the camera in 7-on-7 and the quarterback throws it somewhere and you're like, 'Why'd you throw it there?' All you do is you flip around your head and you can see exactly where his eyes went. What's projected on the TV is exactly what the person sees in the headset, so wherever they look, the TV is going to show you exactly the vantage point they're seeing in that moment."

So while a backup quarterback can see what Hogan saw before hitting the curl route on one rep, he can use the next to turn his head and see the wide open post route Hogan may have missed.

Like it has in with many other technological advancements, Stanford served as ground zero for STRIVR. A former Stanford football player, Belch went into consulting after college before earning an MBA at USC, then returned to pursue a Master's in virtual reality at Stanford while serving as a graduate assistant on David Shaw's staff. The company was born out of a Master's thesis collaboration between Belch and STRIVR co-founder/Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson.

Stanford incorporated VR into its practices during the 2014 season, gradually at first, then much more toward the end of the season. Coincidentally, that's also when Stanford's offense took off.

The Cardinal started the '14 season a disappointing 5-5, averaging a paltry 21.6 points per game against FBS opposition. They finished with a flurry: a 38-17 blowout of California, a 31-10 beatdown of UCLA, and then a 45-21 destruction of Maryland in the Foster Farms Bowl. Hogan's play skyrocketed, hitting a combined 45-of-59 throws for 637 yards (10.8 yards per attempt) with four touchdowns and one interception.

The hot streak continued into 2015, as Hogan's yards per attempt jumped from 7.9 to 9.4 while his touchdown total leaped from 19 to 27. That success extended to the entire team, as the Cardinal rose from 50th to 19th nationally in yards per play and 79th to 18th in scoring. Running back Christian McCaffrey arrived out of nowhere to a runner-up finish in Heisman Trophy voting, and the team claimed its third Pac-12 championship in four years, a blowout Rose Bowl victory and a No. 3 final ranking.

"It was one of those things where we weren't having the kind of success we wanted to have on the field and so we had this great teaching tool we all thought was cool and we all started using it more and selling it more as a staff, and it got our players believing in it and using it more," Bloomgren said. "It's hard to put a quantitative, 'Hey, this absolutely helped us here,' but at the same time everybody was more comfortable, everybody was more confident and our level of play increased -- dramatically."

While the Stanford offense grew exponentially, as did STRIVR.

"Coach Shaw sat me down at the end of (the 2014 season) and said, 'You have something really good. You need to go do it.' As soon as he told me it was time to take it seriously it validated what I was thinking as well," Belch said.

STRIVR opened this time last year, hit the Combine in February and barnstormed through NFL and college facilities throughout the spring. Today, the company lists 31 employees -- headed by Belch, Bailenson and former NFL quarterback Trent Edwards. "We can look coaches in the eyes at both levels and tell them exactly how it would fit into their schedule and we weren't guessing," Belch said. "There's a lot of coaches that see tech products every day and 90 percent of the people pitching it to them can't communicate what it would do because they don't know football."

It's expensive as you think it is, but it won't be that way forever

Price for the STRIVR system is confidential. Truly, if you have to ask, you can't afford it.

Moving forward, STRIVR, whose clientele includes a half-dozen NFL franchises and college programs ranging from the Power Five to the Ivy League, would like to be in every staff room in America. "Tomorrow," Belch said. The price is tied, in part, in how much and how quickly technology develops. The Ocululs Rift headset retails for $599. Future versions will be less expensive but, as technology progresses, better versions will be pricier than that.

"The last two years have been the genesis of VR as we always imagined it," said Park. "VR has been around since the '70's, but the technology's never really caught up until right now."

Though STRIVR is growing -- rapidly -- it also doesn't sell to just anyone who opens its checkbook.

"We'd like to work with everybody, make no bones about it," Belch said. "But at the same time what we do is very specific and I'm not going to lie, we turned a couple teams down last year. We left money on the table because we thought that they were not the right fit for what we're doing and we didn't really feel like they got it."

Because of that, it's not as much work as you might think

STRIVR cuts all of the film its product shoots and promises to turn it around in a timely manner.

"The way that we were doing the filming in 2015 was very time consuming," Belch said. "We weren't going to look an athletic director or an owner or a head coach in the eye and show them a bill for what we're charging them and then oh by the way, your video guy has another five hours of work to do every day. We weren't going to do that.

Turnaround time ranged from three to 12 hours, depending on the urgency of the film in question. Belch says that should shorten, perhaps to as short as half an hour, by this season.

"This past season we stitched over 19,000 plays and we gave them a 24-hour guarantee," Park said. "Our big goal, which we were quite successful with this season, is to have that VR content to be still relevant for that next meeting, because if we turned it over two days from now that doesn't have the same impact, it's not the same use as it would be if we were able to turn it around as quickly as possible. We quote a 24-hour turnaround but our objective is to turn it around in time for their next relevant meeting."

It's not a tool that folds seamlessly into your practice plans (but that's the entire point)

Some less, uh, technologically-advanced coaches may be taken aback at first glance. They'll be in the minority, though.

"We tell them to look around and there's kind of that, 'Holy shit!' reaction at first because they've never seen anything like it," Belch said. "A lot of coaches got it right away. Some needed a little more cajoling."

The users gaze controls the field of vision, and different film options -- divided into positional folders -- are clickable by directing the cursor onto the icon and then nodding to open. As a so-called Millennial, I picked it up immediately without instruction.

"Nobody saw this thing and said, 'Oh, this is just okay.' Everybody that saw it was absolutely blown away," Belch said. "To say, 'This is what's required to get this,' it's a little different way of thinking. It's a little out of the box thinking in some ways and there's other things that we do that integrate right into practice."

Though much of the work is hands-off, staffs still must carve STRIVR into their daily practice plans. Though, if you're making the investment in the first place, that's the entire point.

"That first day we're on the field we'll run a couple plays, and then the other thing we'll do is the older guys will go and do 2-minute against our defense -- good on good -- and while we're doing that we'll take our 2-offense and scout team defense and we'll rep all the looks that the defense is going to show us that week," Bloomgren said. "We're making our points, making our protection adjustments, and that way everybody can go put on the headset and live it. Whether it's the running back that doesn't get enough reps in third down pass pro that might get thrown into the game because somebody breaks a shoelace, or certainly for your backup quarterback, who never gets enough reps.

"The other thing we do is we film every 7-on-7, so again your starting quarterback is getting the bulk of those reps, and now it's a way for your second team quarterback to go in and get those looks. We've got a room just for STRIVR, he puts on the headset, calls the play in the huddle, breaks the huddle, goes up to the line of scrimmage and he lives the rep. He sees the coverage and delivers the ball where it should go. He may or may not have a ball in his hand but everything else is absolutely live and game-like."

Like the technology itself, the way teams use STRIVR is constantly evolving

I saw a recruiting video Temple shot that took users onto the field during the Owls' date with Notre Dame last October that was well beyond anything one could replicate with a regular camera. Word is Clemson has done something similar with its pre-game experience.

On the field, uses spread far beyond quarterbacks. A wide receivers coach can tell a player through traditional film study why his curl route wasn't open at eight yards instead of the preferred 10, then show him in STRIVR exactly what the quarterback saw. A veteran center or middle linebacker, with a camera positioned practically in his hip pads, can coach a newcomer through a practice by telling him exactly where to look on each snap. The possibilities spiral from there.

"Defensive line is a great example," Belch said. "We've gotten some great stuff from that position that I never thought would be possible but when a d-line coach says, 'This is what I'm trying to coach, where I think it could work,' and then for me to combine that with the expertise of how to get this stuff and not make people nauseous when they look at it in an efficient and effective manner, we came up with something really cool."

"I'm biased, I love the product we use and the fact that it was invented at Stanford, all the data would tell you that this is the only product worth using because it is real. It makes you feel like you're there," Bloomgren said. "You hear people talk about visualization and how it can really help someone's performance. This is better than visualization. This is living it without the pounding on your body."