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Unreal: Virtual reality is changing how college football teams train, recruit

Virtual reality is a new frontier for college football programs, with the potential impact how they train and how they recruit.

This story appears in the August 10, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.


This is the reaction, in unison, of 12 Michigan football players as they begin to understand the future of recruiting. During a meeting at Schembechler Hall in mid-June, Taylor Kavanaugh of Headcase, a Los Angeles-based virtual reality company, holds up a custom-made headset designed to mimic the Wolverines' famous blue-and-maize winged helmet. Kavanaugh tells the group that, with the blessing of coach Jim Harbaugh and guidance from tight ends coach Jay Harbaugh, Headcase has created several pieces of VR content that will help distance Michigan from everyone else in college football. One segment is about "a day in the life of a Michigan football player," Kavanaugh says, and another is about the "Michigan game-day experience." During the recruiting process prospects often ask coaches and players what it's like to play football at Michigan. With this headset and content, Kavanaugh says, they'll have an answer they can understand and experience—all from the comfort of their couch.

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Earlier this year a Bay Area company, STRIVR, showed college and NFL programs how virtual reality can change the way players, especially quarterbacks, experience "live" reps and break down game film. In Ann Arbor the conversation turns to how VR can revolutionize recruiting. Kavanaugh, one of Headcase's five co-creators (and a college classmate of the writer), gives a quick Virtual Reality 101, although he prefers to call it immersive reality because you're not separated from the content but rather inside it. Then he invites the players to try the headset. "Rock, paper, scissors for who gets to go first!" yells one lineman as he lumbers to the front of the room. Kavanaugh puts the headset on Jehu Chesson, a receiver from St. Louis. His response is immediate. And loud.

"Oh, snap!"

"Oh, my God!"

"Pick, baby! Ooooh, go right there!"

When Chesson pulls off the headset he says, "Can I get some water? I'm thirsty."

"It's like he played or something," someone murmurs in the back.

The Real Feel: Kavanaugh created VR content that wowed the Michigan players (pictured). "It's like you're right there," said one.

The Real Feel: Kavanaugh created VR content that wowed the Michigan players (pictured). "It's like you're right there," said one.

Yes, it is. What Chesson watched was Headcase's demo reel, a two-minute-and-30-second mash-up of almost three hours of footage filmed on Nov. 16, 2014, the day Oregon State shocked then No. 6 Arizona State 35–27 in Corvallis. Because Kavanaugh is a former OSU walk-on receiver, class of 2009, he had unfettered access to the Beavers' facilities and sideline that day, and the reel makes the viewer feel like part of the team. Hit play, and suddenly you're in Oregon State's locker room for the pregame meeting, compelled to take a knee. Beavers coach Mike Riley (now at Nebraska) looks as if he's right in front of you; turn around and you see every member of the team. Chesson felt like one. He ran through the tunnel onto the field and sprinted up the sideline during a pick-six. When spectators rushed the field to celebrate, he instinctively recoiled to avoid being knocked over.

Defensive tackle Maurice Hurst Jr. takes his turn, and when he takes off the headset, he seems overwhelmed. "Man," he says, shaking his head. "And I thought Google Maps was cool."

"I thought it would be like Viewfinders, like when you were a little kid," Chesson says. "When you pull down [the lever] and—click!—the picture would change. What I just watched, that's mind-blowing stuff. You can feel the energy. It's like you're right there."


​The realism of VR, the authenticity that provokes an emotional response, is what Headcase and the Harbaughs are counting on when they debut the Michigan content in late September ("Day in the Life") and early November ("Game Day"). VR has burst into the mainstream in the past few months, popularized in online gaming communities and Oculus Rift, which Facebook purchased last year for $2 billion. In a recent online chat Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg predicted that "immersive experiences like virtual reality will become the norm." Instead of just telling friends about your trip to Africa, you'll hand them a headset and let them experience it for themselves. Peter Rubin of Wired magazine, who has written extensively about the medium, anticipates that in the next decade VR will be "part of our everyday fabric.

"An explosion of experimentation is fueling this," Rubin says. "It's just going to get more and more wondrous. The next two years are going to be remarkable for sports and VR."

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At the NFL combine in February, former Stanford kicker Derek Belch debuted STRIVR, which is designed to enhance game-film study and specifically to help train quarterbacks. The product, devised by Belch and Stanford Department of Communication professor Jeremy Bailenson with financial backing from Cardinal coach David Shaw, allows quarterbacks to put on a headset and relive games they just played.

While VR won't replace watching film just yet—the headsets are too heavy and awkward to wear for long stretches, and some people feel nauseated when viewing anything in 3D—it can help a signal-caller understand why a play broke down or see who missed a block that led to a sack. It can create empathy, too. With VR, a coach who berated his quarterback about missing a receiver can put on the headset and understand, Oh, that's what you see in this play call.

In the future, Belch believes, college freshmen and NFL rookies will be handed a headset, not an iPad, to memorize the playbook. VR can be especially helpful in college, where the NCAA continually cracks down on contact hours. STRIVR already counts Stanford, Arkansas, Auburn, Clemson, Dartmouth, Rice and Vanderbilt as clients, as well as the Dallas Cowboys, the 49ers and the Vikings. Headcase, in contrast, is working exclusively with Michigan for the 2015 season, though it's been contacted by a handful of other Power Five schools. While STRIVR is not the only VR training tool available, Belch believes the company stands apart because he, as a former player, understands what coaches need to communicate and teach.

The Real Feel: Kavanaugh (pictured, filming at LSU) created VR content that wowed the Michigan players. "It's like you're right there," said one.

The Real Feel: Kavanaugh (pictured, filming at LSU) created VR content that wowed the Michigan players. "It's like you're right there," said one.

STRIVR immerses the viewer in a real-body situation, while other VR training tools, such as EON Sports, use video-game graphics. The latter can be interactive; for instance, coaches can move "players" around to simulate different situations. But nothing compares with the sensation of being immersed in a game. A STRIVR viewer puts on the headset and feels as if he is taking a snap; the user can turn around and practically touch an offensive lineman, or look behind and find the running back.

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"The invention of Avid [video-editing technology] about 30 years ago, which computerized the game—[that's exactly how I felt] when I first saw virtual reality," says Arkansas coach Bret Bielema. "I think it's going to train younger players a lot faster. They can go watch a 30-play clip on virtual reality, sit in a room on a chair, and it would be the equivalent of going out and going through those 30 plays."

Most VR content is shot using GoPro cameras, but those devices aren't designed for immersive events. Mounting and shooting with multiple GoPros creates the 360 effect, but because GoPros can't be synced, images still have to be stitched together manually, a long and tedious process. Belch would not give details on STRIVR's solution to this issue, but he says the company found a way to "streamline" those steps.


Field of Dreams: The specialized, and expensive, camera built by Headcase enables Michigan recruits to virtually experience what it's like to run onto the field at the Big House.

Field of Dreams: The specialized, and expensive, camera built by Headcase enables Michigan recruits to virtually experience what it's like to run onto the field at the Big House.

Video quality is what Headcase hopes will separate it from other VR companies. Instead of focusing on VR as a training tool, which is useful to only a small percentage of the population, Headcase intends to use it as a storytelling platform accessible to recruits, families and fans. "We're not doing this for insiders," says Headcase co-creator Lucas Foster. "We're trying to do this for regular people."

First, Headcase had to build a camera. The company was mostly the brainchild of Kavanaugh, but Foster, a longtime Hollywood producer of movies such as Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Man on Fire and Law Abiding Citizen, opens doors in Hollywood. In collaboration with L.A. camera house Radiant Images, Headcase created a mobile rig with 17 high-end cinema cameras assembled in a 360-degree display. Several of these cameras were used to shoot Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation.

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As Headcase co-creator Jim Langlois, who has a background in Hollywood producing and editing, likes to say, "There's only one R2D2." And there are only so many people who know how to put him together. The Headcase rig—which runs on a $2,000 wheelchair base bought from a retirement home in Los Angeles and is operated by an Xbox controller—weighs about 175 pounds and breaks down into 24 boxes, including monitors, wireless screens and cords. With a crew of two, it takes one full day to assemble. It's worth $750,000, about four times the cost of a standard Hollywood camera. Headcase is working on ways to shrink the camera and mount it on a person. (Foster jokes that he is on the prowl for very short retired jockeys.) A popular rental in Hollywood, the rig has been used to shoot a Chevy commercial and a Comic-Con VR experience for FX's show The Strain. Shooting content with it is "like having eyes in the back of your head," Foster says.

The coolest part of any good VR product might be this: Because of a viewer's complete immersion and ability to choose his own path, "you never watch a piece of content the same way twice," Foster says. "It's unrepeatable. After a while [rewatching movies] gets stale; here it never gets stale. There's an act of discovery there that gives you a little chill."

Sports are a natural VR guinea pig because they're great theater. "If you're a sports fan and you love Michigan football, and if we can make you feel like you're a part of it, why would you leave?" Foster says. "It's addictive reality, not just immersive." Though tech enthusiasts have been experimenting with 360-degree viewing since the 1950s, for decades there have been only three VR success stories: military training, phobia desensitization, and education, in areas such as surgical training. Bailenson, who has been studying VR since the late 1990s, says sports have always been "the holy grail of VR," but until recently the technology wasn't advanced enough.

Screen Time: The STRIVR system, demonstrated here by Derek Belch's brother Danny, was specifically designed to help teams train without contact.

Screen Time: The STRIVR system, demonstrated here by Derek Belch's brother Danny, was specifically designed to help teams train without contact.

The medium remains in its infancy, though, and Foster says that from a Hollywood perspective it's nowhere near ready for full-length feature films. But Foster has a special interest in what VR can do for Michigan football: His two oldest daughters, Megan and Ali, are a Michigan graduate and student, respectively. "I didn't understand when I sent them off to college that I was joining a cult," Foster says. "I've stood in the bleachers and swayed back and forth, I've sung 'You Suck!' and it's been really fun. But now I'm really excited about getting to see that from a player's point of view. And I'm interested in architecting that story for other people to experience."

It's not lost on Foster that his cool factor at home has gone up exponentially since taking this side gig. Ali Foster grew up on movie sets, sharing space and conversations with the likes of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Denzel Washington, but when her dad visited UM in April and texted Ali a photo of Jim Harbaugh's office, she flipped out, peppering him with questions about what and who he saw and whether he could get autographs and game tickets for her. "Suddenly I'm a rock star to her," he says, rolling his eyes.


Jim Harbaugh, a staunch traditionalist, believes that regardless of how the message is delivered or what technology is used, prospects will always pick a school based on the ABC's: Academics, Ball and Campus. "There's no bad time to see Michigan," he says, "and no bad way to see Michigan." Come September there will just be one more way to experience it.

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​Imagine that a prospect is on campus in January for an official visit and he walks into the Big House. The frigid temperature distracts him from coaches who are trying to describe what the stadium will be like on a Saturday in the fall. But hand him a headset, and he'll experience it firsthand, cold weather forgotten. Or say the hypothetical prospect is from Hawaii, and his grandmother, one of the most influential people in his decision, couldn't make the trip to Ann Arbor. During the home visit Harbaugh could hand her a headset and say, "Here. This is what it'll be like for him."

"In recruiting, a lot of times we're stuck in Imagination World," Jay Harbaugh says. "With VR, instead of just saying, 'Hey, this is our team meeting room; imagine what it's like when it's full,' you get a chance to take things out of the fantasy realm and let the kids see and feel, to some degree, what life would be like as a Wolverine."


Back in the Michigan team meeting in mid-June, players start to envision a new recruiting reality. They suggest that the rig get up close and personal for fall-camp trash talk, and they predict that high school boys will enjoy immersing themselves in a postgame reality in which female students compliment them and invite them out for the evening. "Pretty girls, that's what gets the recruit!" someone yells. (Chesson, a senior, astutely adds, "Uh, but maybe we don't show that part to the moms.") The other hot topic: the possibilities of VR and Call of Duty. Hurst, the defensive tackle, offers this: "The camera could be next to me during sprints and watch me throw up in three-dimension." When teammates snicker, Hurst mutters, "Hey, it's supposed to be realistic."

• TIME: Why virtual reality is about to change the world

Any high-quality VR takes deep pockets. Belch and Kavanaugh both declined to give specifics on how much their systems cost, saying it varies based on what each client needs. Michigan's package includes 12 customized headsets, which retail for around $200 apiece. But this is just a glimpse of the future.

"VR, it's like the birth of television," Foster says. "It's a completely new way to express stories. I don't think people really understand what's about to happen.