Sports teams tackle VR FEATURE
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More startups are selling virtual reality platforms for training players and revving up fans' experience.

Say you're the quarterback of a football team and winning the game depends on your ability to make instantaneous decisions. With that in mind, it's likely you spend many hours a week repeating different plays to make sure they're almost reflexive reactions. But that's not only tiring, it's also difficult if you're injured. Plus, there generally are rules about how much time players can spend training in the field.

That's where virtual reality (VR) comes in. Quarterbacks on teams using a VR platform from startup STriVR, for example, put on a headset and find themselves immersed in videos of real plays, feeling like they're on the field, practicing the right moves repeatedly. "A lot of time they're making decisions in one or two seconds, so anything you can do to improve their reactions really helps," says Derek Belch, co-founder of STRIVR.

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Football players aren't the only ones in the sports world using VR. In fact, as hardware prices have started to drop, the technology has begun entering the athletic arena in earnest, largely in two very different areas. One is aimed at players themselves, from professional teams to college athletes, for use in training. The other targets fans, enhancing the experience of watching a game or providing new views into what happens backstage.

Mental training

Take the matter of training. STRIVR, started in 2015, was the brainchild of Belch who, at the time, was a Stanford University football team assistant coach, also getting a master's degree in media studies, with an emphasis on VR. In fact, his master's thesis was on training football players using VR and, of course, he was able to test out his proposals on the team.

How does it work? Using multiple 360-degree video cameras, STRIVR's crew films a team in action, then delivers the video through their platform to a VR headset worn by the player. With that, athletes get a first-person view of the field as they would see it in real life. A quarterback could go through a mental checklist of each play, watching from different vantage points. "It's about mental repetitions, not physical ones," says Belch. "They don't need to throw more balls. They need to speed up their decision making."             

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Now, although the first focus was on quarterbacks, it's used for a variety of positions, as well as basketball, hockey and other sports, by 25 professional and collegiate teams.

Another startup, EON Sports VR, targets professional baseball and football teams with content that's a mix of 360-degree video, computer-generated images and visualized data streamed through its software in real time. It's all about immersing batters in the experience of playing against a particular pitcher they're due to go up against. "It gives you the feeling of playing a live game," says Brendan Reilly, CEO. "It's like getting the answers to the test before it happens." The software is programmed to take into account the laws of physics, so there's a life-like representation of the ball's flight. According to Reilly, he‘s seen such results as increases in players' batting averages.

Immersion for fans

In a different vein, VR is being used in another arena—improving what's known in the biz as the "fan experience". EON, for example, also produces what Reilly calls "mixed reality " experiences, combining VR and augmented reality, where the physical world is supplemented with virtual elements, like statistics.

NextVR, another startup, captures sporting event action with multiple 3D cameras, allowing viewers who download an app to view the game with their VR headsets. In some cases, fans can control where they see the action—say , from a courtside seat or the tunnel the team walks through. While not all its content is real-time, it currently live streams at least one NBA League Pass game per week through a partnership with NBA Digital and presented the opening match of the 2016/2017 Bundesliga (Bayern Munich vs. Werder Bremen) from Munich, via a partnership with FOX.

In 2015, the National Football League (NFL) started experimenting with the technology to understand the potential and logistical considerations. Last year, it stepped that up a notch. Though not doing any live streaming, it began distributing content, working with several partners, including NextVR. For example, it produced a series of episodes for its YouTube channel, taking viewers behind the scenes to experience team life before and after a game with 360-degree video. "You feel like you're in the locker room with the players sitting right next to you," says Will Deng, director of media strategy and business development. In another case, the league, working with partners, created highlights of games, allowing fans to feel as though they're on the sidelines.

Now, Deng is continuing to test out the best way to tell a story. "This isn't something to do just because VR exists," he says. "It's about continuing to learn how to use the technology."

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About Anne Field

Anne Field has covered entrepreneurship and small business for the New York Times and Bloomberg BusinessWeek.