Football team uses state-of-the-art virtual reality tool

by Justin Kramer | 2/9/18 2:40am

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by Nora Masler / The Dartmouth Staff

This article was featured in the 2018 Winter Carnival Issue.

Dartmouth quarterback Jack Heneghan ’18 drops back for the snap, looks to his left to see wide receiver Drew Hunnicutt ’19 streaking toward the middle and fires into the opening for the game-winning touchdown. Only Heneghan is not on the grass of Memorial Field; he is standing in his own room, running through repetition after repetition wearing the team’s virtual reality headset from STRIVR (pronounced “striver”) Labs.

Sports Training In Virtual Reality is a state-of-the-art virtual reality training company that Dartmouth football uses to enhance player in-game performance by providing an immersive sports video consumption experience off of the field. The virtual reality product, which launched in 2015 and was named Sports Illustrated’s Innovation of the Year, has spread across the sporting world, making its way to professional and collegiate football, basketball, soccer and hockey programs.

Dartmouth football has adopted STRIVR into both its mandatory and optional training regimens, giving the team an edge as the only Ivy League team with the technology.

The STRIVR-Dartmouth Relationship

Considering the impact STRIVR has made in transforming the Dartmouth off-field training experience, head coach Buddy Teevens ’79’s early exposure to the company was a stroke of luck.

Teevens said he first discovered STRIVR when reading a USA Today article about the newly launched company. Having served as Stanford University’s head coach from 2002 to 2004, his interest was piqued when he saw the names of former Stanford kicker Derek Belch, STRIVR’s founder and chief executive officer, and quarterback Trent Edwards, vice president of product, so he called them up.

“I said, ‘Hey, what are you into, what are you doing? This sounds like fascinating science to me, and it’s certainly very applicable to sports, specifically the quarterback position,’” Teevens said. “They were guys that I had recruited at Stanford, so we had a relationship and it took off from there.”

Still, Teevens had serious concerns before trying on the headset.

“I was a little skeptical,” he said. “I had seen some virtual reality demonstrations in the past, and it was like PacMan — not completely accurate and cartoonish.”

But when he actually gave STRIVR a try, Teevens said he was astonished.

“When they had me put on the goggles, it was a real football team with real guys that move,” he said. “Literally, the ball was snapped, and I moved to catch it. It was that realistic, and that was stunning to me.”

At that moment, Dartmouth’s early partnership with STRIVR was born.

“They were just starting out, and I expressed my interest, and certainly they were willing to help us,” Teevens said.

Heneghan discovered STRIVR in its early stages during his freshman spring break in 2015, before Dartmouth began using the product.

“The first time I heard about STRIVR, it was online — I read a big article that was published about them by Fox Sports and about the traction they were getting with college teams and pro teams,” Heneghan said. “When I came back to school after spring break, I found out that we had purchased a license and were the first team in our league and one of the first college teams to be using it.”

His fascination with STRIVR did not end there. Heneghan was so impressed with the technology that he took the extra step of taking an unpaid internship there.

“After using the STRIVR headset for about a year, I was going home to Menlo Park, California for the winter and reached out to STRIVR saying, ‘I really like the product, I’ll be home for the six-week break, I’m willing to work for free, and this is something I really believe in,’” he said.

As STRIVR became a more important part of the Dartmouth football system, Heneghan watched the Silicon Valley startup soar in popularity.

“There was a wall full of pennants where, for each program they worked with, they would get a pennant for them,” he said. “They were putting up a new pennant, it seemed like, every week or every day.”

How STRIVR Works

Virtual reality has gained prominence in recent years for its ability to fully surround its users in an enthralling alternate scene. Lorie Loeb, a Dartmouth computer science professor who utilized VR to create homelike experiences for astronauts on extended missions, provided some insight on the technology.

“The thing about VR is that it creates such an immersive environment that it tricks your brain into thinking that you actually are there,” she said. “You really are transformed; it’s incredible.”

Loeb explained how VR technology functions.

“You’re wearing these goggles where you’re seeing an image and you’re surrounded by that image,” she said. “The image that you’re looking at is some sort of 3D immersive environment.”

STRIVR aims to capitalize on this technology by giving it a practical purpose: training. Heneghan said he has been blown away by the experience of using STRIVR, logging more hours using it than any other football player at any level, according to Teevens.

“When you have the headset on, it feels practically identical to being out on the field as if you’ve just been standing there,” Heneghan said. “You can turn around 360 degrees and see everything that was around the camera, and you can see it pretty clearly as well. It really mimics all of the senses of being out there.”

As of now, STRIVR can only stitch film together from plays videographed during practice.

“In the context of our team, we would film parts of our practice using the camera, which was basically a tripod with a couple of go-pros tied together on the top,” Heneghan explained. “We would film parts of practice from different points of view, primarily the quarterback’s point of view, and that footage would be stitched into video that was compatible with the headset.”

Loeb said what makes the virtual reality experience work after filming and stitching is completed is the ability to move within the scene.

“It’s a real-time render of that scene,” she said. “As you move your head, the scene moves with you. It has software to track your head position as you’re moving.”

Players have been able to watch video in a more immersing setting than two-dimensional film as a result of STRIVR’s recreation of live 3D scenes.

“What it would allow us to do in preparation is go back and re-watch the plays we had run in practice in three dimensions,” Heneghan said. “This technology allowed us to re-run those plays and relive them afterwards rather than getting a limited number of them during physical practice.”

STRIVR’s Impact on Dartmouth Football

For Heneghan and the rest of the football team, STRIVR has transformed the training experience and given the Big Green a technological upper hand over the rest of the league.

“I think it gave me a huge advantage,” Heneghan said. “For each game in a 10-week season, you might only get three practices, and in those practices, time is of the essence and repetitions are limited.”

Heneghan would use STRIVR six days a week, 10 to 30 minutes on non-game days and 30 to 40 minutes before every game. Teevens strongly attributed Heneghan’s emergence as a premier Ivy League quarterback to his extensive use of STRIVR.

“To see his development in terms of decision-making and reaction time was exceptional,” Teevens said. “He worked very hard [with STRIVR], and he worked hard on the field as well, but to be able to watch multiples of plays in different pressure situations or blitz profiles of different teams and react in real-time to what people were doing helped him tremendously.”

The sheer number of repetitions outside of practice is where Teevens sees STRIVR making its biggest impact.

“The wonderful benefit of STRIVR is that you can take an exponential number of visual snaps without being on the field or having to go through a practice format,” Teevens said. “A guy does a limited amount of work on the field, but he can double, triple, quadruple that sitting in his dormitory, the study lounge or the video library.”

The formalized training program for using STRIVR also allows players to fully comprehend their coaches’ feedback.

“[Getting feedback] makes sense in terms of the verbiage, but when you actually see it on tape it’s ‘Wow, man I know what he’s talking about,’ so it’s a tremendous teaching tool,” Teevens explained.

Beyond the formal program, the technology is available for any player who wants additional training, which mimics football practice, even off the field.

“The nice thing is, it’s flexible,” Teevens said. “[Heneghan] and some of the other guys would take [STRIVR] to their dormitory, so maybe before bed for 10 to 15 minutes they would take some snaps. Those little pockets accumulate over time. It’s real time, people move the way that they move on a field and the reaction of the quarterback can be accelerated just through repetition. It’s really been beneficial.”

While STRIVR was vital for the team’s success this year, some of the main future beneficiaries of the system may have not yet garnered much playing time. Heneghan said using STRIVR earlier in his career allowed him to practice even without playing many minutes.

“When I was younger on the team my freshman and sophomore year, I wasn’t playing as much in the games or in practice,” Heneghan said. “So when you’re not getting those physical reps in practice, getting those visual ones really helped me learn faster and develop faster.”

STRIVR may even benefit Dartmouth in relation to students not yet enrolled, as Teevens said he believes that it can serve as an important recruitment tool for years to come.

After a successful 8-2 season filled with late comebacks and excellent play from Heneghan at quarterback, Dartmouth looks to keep improving in 2018 with the help of STRIVR.

STRIVR’s Potential Impact on the Sport of Football

With STRIVR in tow, the Big Green have found some success, but any technological advantage figures to close as more teams innovate with companies such as STRIVR.

“I think it has the potential to make quality of play a lot higher particularly at the higher levels,” Heneghan said. “Right now, it’s something that only professional teams and upper-end colleges can afford, but I think those teams have seen a huge benefit in using it and it’s made the game that much more enjoyable for fans to watch.”

Heneghan identified health and safety as a primary, large-scale priority of the football community which STRIVR could further.

“I think [STRIVR] also has the potential to keep making the game safer; that’s something that people talk about a lot in all aspects of football, but this is one where there is a pretty direct correlation between use of VR and the physical reps you need to take to be prepared,” he said. “If it limits some of the physical practice that needs to get done, that has the potential to cut down on injuries.”

For similar reasons as Heneghan, Teevens sees STRIVR creating a safer football environment and hopes other programs will realize this benefit.

“People sometimes are hesitant in this profession to move forward and be progressive in their thoughts,” Teevens said. “My attitude is that’s the way the game is going. In training effectively and safely, this will be critical, and this is a tool to really enhance performances of players in a safe fashion.”

For now, at least, Dartmouth football seems to be ahead of the sports technology chase. Until the rest of the league catches on or other products come onto the scene, their players will reap the benefits of Dartmouth’s innovative acquisition, both on the field and in the comforts of their own dormitories.