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Gaining An Edge: Cowboys Will Train Their Quarterbacks Using Sophisticated Virtual Reality Technology

The Cowboys have an agreement in place to use cutting-edge Virtual Reality technology developed at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab as a tool to help train their quarterbacks.

Imagine how much better Dustin Vaughan will play if he's already experienced this situation dozens of times?
Imagine how much better Dustin Vaughan will play if he's already experienced this situation dozens of times?
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Allow me to start with a short epigram, from The Matrix. I hope you'll find it appropriate.

Neo: I thought it wasn't real.
Morpheus: Your mind makes it real.

In our draft review podcast back in early May, one of the invited guests was the inimitable O.C.C., with whom we discussed the new draft class in a particular light: the Cowboys' use of analytics. In reviewing the 2015 draftees, The Cool One demonstrated convincingly that analytics - especially metrics like SPARQ - had been an integral aspect of the Cowboys' prospect evaluation.

This was one piece in a mounting portfolio of evidence that suggests - despite Jonathan Bales' protestations otherwise - that the Cowboys have been employing cutting-edge technologies, and using them in myriad ways: to see draft prospects in a different light, to understand how a certain player processes information, or to track carefully how much they run, jump, or hit in a given practice.

Recall the story that emerged from training camp, where the team used sophisticated software to track every step taken by each player - especially wide receivers and defensive backs - for the duration of a practice. It's one thing to count practice "reps"; it's quite another to see just how far each player runs every afternoon. Add to that recent stories about their use of drones to get better angles when they film OTA practices. If Jason Garrett's stated mission is to "get better each and every day," these tools help the players to perform maximally so they can do just that.

And now they will have a new technology at their disposal.  A recent article in re/code, a technology and media website, announced that the Cowboys will soon train their quarterbacks using "Virtual Reality" technology. Dallas is the first NFL team to broker a deal with STRIVR Labs, a virtual reality sports startup, to train players - reports say quarterbacks, linebacker and safeties will all benefit - using sophisticated virtual reality (VR) headsets. Indeed, the ever-reliable Todd Archer reports that the Cowboys have already added a new room for the STRIVR system at Valley Ranch.

Before we get too deeply into how this might work practically, I'd like to take a look at STRIVR, the company that has developed the VR technology. It's the brainchild of former Stanford kicker Derek Belch, who initially developed the concept as his master's thesis in the University's world-renowned VR lab. After using the technology to help Stanford turn around its 2015 season, Belch and STRIVR (The ST is an homage to their Stanford roots, the VR for Virtual Reality) are going public, with a portion of their seed money provided by the Cardinal's head coach David Shaw.

This fall, Shaw allowed five minutes of every Monday practice to be taken up by Belch and his team, filming the Stanford players going through their playsheets. Offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren would select eight to ten blitz looks favored by the upcoming opponent and, from those, choose the plays that would be appropriate responses to those blitzes. The scout team would carry out these plays as Belch and his video crew filmed.

By Wednesdays, when the quarterbacks came into the football office, Stanford's game plan was already loaded into the Virtual Reality apparatus, available to them when they donned specially developed headsets. Still, the early experiences were not entirely realistic or helpful. A lot had to be worked out, as Bruce Feldman writes, in an excellent FOX Sports piece on the relationship between Belch, Shaw and Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab:

The first two months of the season, Belch and his crew did a lot of experimenting. They had to gauge exactly where to put the tripod. What depth worked best? Snapping the football proved to be problematic. Where should the actual QB stand? They tried him kneeling down in front of tripod, but that didn't look right. Worse still, Belch says the stitching of the video wasn't clear, so it was blurry and it might look like Stanford had two right tackles.

This trial-and-error phase lasted into November, as Belch's team steadily figured out how to generate the raw footage that would allow them to create a believable virtual experience. This is why it's so critical to hear that the Cowboys have had a stationary camera behind the line of scrimmage during the last two OTA sessions, to give a 360-degree view of the plays, complete with sound: they need to have worked out the kinks for the system to be effective.

Once the bugs were ironed out, the STRIVR gang had created something unique. Here's the way it works: after donning the headset, players see a live-action 3-D video replay of a football play from the quarterback's perspective, and can review that play from a first-person view over and over, looking in any direction. Here's how Feldman describes it:

Look left and you can see your tight end settling into position next to the left tackle. In front of you, the safeties and MIKE linebacker are trying to get lined up. Turn your head to the right and you look over the right tackle and all the way out to the wide receiver on the right side of the formation with a cornerback facing him, peeking in at you. Keeping turning to the right — it's OK to twist around. Now 180 degrees and — whoa! — there's your running back staring right at you.

Stanford signal-caller Kevin Hogan says it's significantly better than watching film. To wit:

"When you're watching on film you have a birds-eye view from the sky. It's hard to see if they're leaning one way or the other. But with this, when you're going through your cadence and start to go through your dummy count, you can see the safety start to creep up a little bit. That's an indicator. When you're just watching film, you don't get the sound, you don't get that real-life feel of the game. With this, I can see what the structure is."

But there's more to it than that. VR at its best creates an embodied experience. For years, in early VR applications like flight simulators, there was a critical disconnect between technology and neurology. What happened was that the eyes and ears would tell the pilot's brain one story, but the body's proprioceptors, which make spatial sense of the body's position and exertions, would contradict it. The result was that the person undergoing the experiment would suffer a profound dysphoria, and almost always begin vomiting.

In recent years, however, significant improvements have been made in VR technology such that gamers, for example, can experience what some experts call spatial immersion. This occurs when a player feels the simulated world is perceptually convincing. The player feels that he or she is really "there" and that a simulated world looks and feels "real." At its best, the experience is so convincing that the player experiences "presence," a conviction, rooted deeply in the body, that she or he is in another world.

It's this profoundly embodied experience that Shaw wanted his quarterbacks to have. When experiencing presence, he notes, the body doesn't know the difference between R (reality) and VR:

"When it looks like you're falling, you brace yourself even though you know you're standing on the ground. So now if I can get the quarterback's mind to feel like, 'Hey, I've been here before,' he can make quicker decisions. He can anticipate what's gonna happen, which heightens our chance for success."

And, indeed this proved to be the case. Once the STRIVR team had worked out the kinks, Stanford's quarterbacks began to see benefits from their immersive VR "reps." Hogan, who had struggled for most of the 2015 season, played well in late November against Cal before playing his best game of the season against eighth-ranked 8 UCLA in a 31-10 blowout, during which he connected on 16-of-19 passes, with two of his three incompletions coming on drops. After he started using the headset regularly for about 20 minutes before games, Hogan's completion percentage shot up from 64 to 76 percent.

But it's not just the starter who should benefit. Backups should gain as much, if not more, from VR immersion, since it gives them opportunities for 3-D reps that a limited practice schedule doesn't normally afford. As Shaw points out:

That (third-stringer) is not getting any reps. Not any practice time. If that third QB can spend 10 to 15 (minutes) a week on this, and then he's thrown into active duty in the middle of the fourth quarter because he's felt those blitzes come at him and he's seen how we're gonna pick this blitz up and this is where the route is going to come open, he's mentally and emotionally and visually been there.

Recall Brandon Weeden coming in for Tony Romo against the blitz-happy Redskins last year. If he had access to VR immersion, he would not only have already seen, but already heard, and felt what Jim Haslett's blitzes were like.

Thus far, everybody who has donned the virtual reality headset has come away impressed, but the most fervent supporters are the men who have played quarterback. After a VR session, former Super Bowl winning QB Trent Dilfer's first thought was "This is gonna change how QBs prepare." Shaw agrees, adding "Every NFL QB that's seen it has been blown away and said, 'I want this. It's better than watching film. It's better than sitting on my iPad where I can kinda see but I really can't see it.'...That's the one demographic where it's been 100 percent."

For Dilfer, the STRIVR experience is an "an absolute walk-off grand slam" - but a conditional one. The key, he reasons, is that:

"the coach has to understand it, and it's going to depend on the coaching staff and how much they're willing to prepare those repetitions, because there's gonna be a ton of legwork that goes into it. I guarantee this: A lot of teams (that saw it at the Combine) are back in their homes thinking, 'How are we gonna implement that?'"

Given that Dallas has inked a two-year deal with STRIVR Labs, they should have an idea of how they might implement the new technology.  Presumably, it will help Tony Romo. But it could change the career of a young player like Dustin Vaughan who gets only scout team snaps during the season. Think of how much faster he might be able to progress if he's able to take hundreds of virtual reps that aren't available to other third-stringers.

And early reports suggest that the Cowboys will extend Stanford's application of the technology to include not only quarterbacks but linebackers and safeties, defensive positions that, like quarterback, rely on immediate recognition of complex patterns from subtle inputs. The beauty of this for any player, regardless of position, is that he can get as many reps as needed - hundreds, if necessary - that he experiences with and in his body, but that don't take a physical toll.

The VR environment is one where analytics could be tremendously impactful. Apparently, one unnamed team president was so enamored of the STRIVR technology that he began to consider other ways his organization could use it, such as putting heart-rate monitors on players and collecting data while they're in the VR environment as compared to on the field. Shaw noted that he could add voiced-over coaching suggestions to what the player sees, to "talk ‘em through" a specific scenario.

And there are other potential applications. It wouldn't be too difficult to capture a lot of useful data, particularly in terms of the quarterback's bodily movements. Say a player struggles in a certain situation or a specific type of play. By analyzing subtle head or shoulder movements - and, more importantly, when they happen, and what they might be a reaction to - coaches can make small tweaks in his motion, stance or processing.

And, finally: imagine how useful it would be to see how potential draft picks react to game situations in VR; it would be like injecting the standard whiteboard sessions with nitrous oxide. Without much difficulty, teams could get a much better idea of how well prospects see the field and how they process information in three dimensions.

As with the tracking software used in training camp, or the drones they have begun to use to record OTA practices, the Cowboys are likely to be very hush-hush about their use of STRIVR; don't expect to see video footage of any Cowboys players with a headset strapped to them. But be assured that they will indeed have it strapped, in their new Valley Ranch lab, and will be taking useful virtual reps that will, paradoxically, give their bodies experience without wearing them down.

And that's the name of the game. Ammi right?

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