Virtual striker: Using VR to train Premier League stars
How one company is taking VR out of the boardroom and into the locker room
Virtual reality (VR) is starting to find its feet as an enterprise tool, and one of the most popular use cases for it is in training. Engineers can use it to learn how to maintain large and expensive pieces of machinery, managers can run conflict resolution simulations, and construction workers can model building projects. These applications are merely the tip of the iceberg, however, and the technology is being used in some unique and unexpected settings.
One of the most interesting players is Rezzil, a company using VR to train and develop Premier League footballers. Run by ex-gaming developers, the company builds VR platforms that can accurately simulate real-world scenarios, allowing clubs to train players and analyse match tactics. The system works by using HTC Vive headsets combined with wireless adapters and the company’s ‘puck’ trackers – one on each foot and shin – to accurately track a player’s movement and ball control, including motions like outside spin, stops and kick-ups. Rezzil has fine-tuned the physics to the point the system will even model and respond to different boot types and sizes.
Easing the road to recovery
One of the main ideas behind the technology is to help players recover faster from injuries, says co-founder Adam Dickinson. Leg, knee and ankle problems are among the most common issues that can affect professional footballers, but recovery usually requires them to avoid traditional practice and training for extended periods of time, during which their skills can atrophy.
“The main factor in rehabilitation is a player can lose about 60% of their cognitive sharpness during that injury, where they fall off,” Dickinson explains. “The whole point is that we can keep them sharp, we can put them back in the same scenarios, the decision making, keeping them at that elite level.”
Because Rezzil’s training drills involve minimal physical contact, he adds, players can keep their skills up without risking further strain. This has allowed injured players to retain their contracts at clubs by showing their cognitive skills haven’t suffered, whereas they may otherwise have been let go.
Aside from rehabilitation and general skills training, Rezzil’s technology also allows clubs to analyse previous matches and tactics deployed. The system can ingest match data from the industry-standard data tracking tools used in sports stadia, convert it into positional information and then recreate the match in a virtual environment. This allows managers, coaches and players to review the action, as it happened, from any angle they choose.
“Traditionally, a manager's position on the pitch is the worst place to view any game ever,” says Dickinson. “So they like to be up in the stands, or you might be experiencing where you thought a goalkeeper was at fault, but actually, his line of sight was blocked by a player. It's really, really useful for conflict resolution.”
This can also be extended to building out custom-made training drills based on specific situations and opponents, such as analysing a certain player’s habits in order to counter them. “For example,” Dickinson continues, “if you know Mbappé is going to always run down the right-hand side of a certain player, that defender can train over and over and over again without the fatigue, in that position.”
This attention to detail has paid dividends for Rezzil; the company counts major Premier League clubs including Arsenal, Manchester City, and Manchester United among its customers, as well as American and German sides. The company has also deployed its systems for the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, but it’s not just limited to football; Rezzil is already working with an NBA basketball team in the US and attempting to branch out into sports like golf and American football.
Converting professionals to new ways of working
Of course, working with cutting-edge technology isn’t without its challenges. Dickinson says one of the biggest problems when doing on-site demonstrations with customers is the lack of connectivity within training grounds, which has forced them to carry a selection of Wi-Fi dongles and mobile hubs around with them. Rezzil also had to customise a lot of the VR hardware it uses for use in a specific environment. For example, although the clip-on battery packs powering the wireless adapters for HTC’s desktop headsets work fine with jeans, Dickinson explains they’re heavy enough to pull football shorts down.
Subsequent advances in mobile VR technology have mitigated these issues, but for Dickinson, the hardware has always been somewhat less important than getting the software and the interaction models to feel natural and realistic. Because many players aren’t familiar with high-end VR, he says, they have to be carefully introduced to the technology to avoid turning them off altogether.
“We've got to put it in front of Premier League players. If they swung their foot and then the ball was a second after, they'd just say 'no, it doesn't work'. So we learned our lessons trying different haptics. We have a much stronger feedback just using audio, letting your brain fill in the pieces – but you have to have zero latency. That's the key.”
In addition to catering for professional clubs, Rezzil has also branched out into the consumer market. The company’s Player 22 software acts as a more ‘gamified’ offering that appeals to casual players whilst still retaining the technical foundation of its more established packages. However, Dickinson says that while becoming “the EA Sports of VR” isn’t exactly unappealing, the company still remains focused on serving top-tier athletes.
“It's been a long, long road, and it won't end. The elite side will always feed in,” he says. “We want to find someone [through our platform] that would have never been discovered; someone who would never have been found traditionally, through traditional scouting methods.”
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