NFL Teams Using Virtual Reality to Up Their Game

Designing Digitally


For the National Football League and its 32 teams around the country, the game of football is serious business. Every advantage that can be exploited on and off the field could mean the difference between a trip to the post-season and a losing record. That’s why a few teams around the league are trying out an innovative new training technique that may forever change the way players practice and prepare for games.

At least five NFL teams are testing out virtual reality headsets that allow players to take part in plays without ever actually setting foot on the field. It works using specially designed headsets and actual footage from practice games to create a 360-degree view of a virtual playing field. In this VR setting a player can see all of the other players around him, and can watch as the play unfolds before him in real time.

Simulations teach new quarterbacks the plays without the bruises

What is the advantage of virtual reality in the NFL you might ask? Well, imagine a new quarterback like number 1 pick Jamies Winston of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He has the task of learning all the team’s plays, the various offensive alignments, the capabilities of his new team mates, and even the different defensive setups of other teams – all on the job. But with virtual reality he can be immersed in whatever situation his coaches want to drill him on, without the possibility of injury on the field.

This idea of multiple repetitions in a controlled environment is a coach’s dream for his highly-paid new quarterback. It allows for more time spent with each of the plays, since the system can reset and rerun a play far faster than players can get back to the line. It also lets the coaches focus on the precise areas where a player may need improvement.

The technology at play

One of the primary developers of this new technology is Derek Belch, a former Stanford football player and then coach. He also wrote his Master’s thesis on virtual reality as a training tool. Belch founded a company called Strivr, and decided to focus on actual 360-degree video for a reason.

“All of the research coming out of Stanford’s VR Lab is that human movement is incredibly important in how our brain perceives something,” Belch says. “It’s key for high-speed, fast decision-making athletes to see natural gaits of other players in VR. When you watch video games in an immersed environment it's cool, but when trying to train athletes' brains, they will tune out and end up making decisions off of false cues."

In using this new VR technology in a real-world setting, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan had three of his best games in 2014. This was proof enough for Belch, and this year he presented his technology to college football programs and to the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys were the first NFL team to sign on, and gave the system rave reviews. Soon after, five more teams came on board.

Endless possibilities

With this technology truly in its infancy, the possibilities for its uses seem limitless. Coaches can place themselves on the field to see what their players are seeing. Offensive players can see plays from the perspective of the defense. Details such as which direction a player’s eyes are looking can be studied, and movements predicted. And that’s just within the realm of football.

When we consider the future of virtual reality, 360-degree virtual imagery and immersion in a setting, we can imagine any number of uses. Complex scenarios can be studied and repeated until perfected, in an environment that is as close to reality as it’s possible to get. This is one view of the future of training, and the opportunities for virtual reality.

If you want to learn more about how virtual reality training is being used in corporate settings, let us know. Here at Designing Digitally, Inc., we’re experts at eLearning development, 3D training simulations, virtual world development, serious games, and more. Let us develop a custom training solution for your team or organization. We’re on the cutting edge of digital training design, and can show you just what the future holds.