A concussion-free vision of the NFL’s possible virtual reality future

by Will Mason • September 10th, 2015

John Brady’s fingers stretch out for the ball as he calls “HIKE,” his breath fogging up the cool air around him as he does. Snatching the ball out of the air he takes it up to his ear scanning down field for an open receiver. The clock was ticking down on the Los Angeles Ram’s season, this was it, Super Bowl LXX was in its last minute of the game and Brady’s team was down six with no timeouts.

‘Just breathe,’  his father’s words echoing in his head as he relaxed.

The London Rippers had been playing an extremely tight defensive game, having sacked Brady four times already in the contest, he was not about to let there be a fifth. Keeping his gaze firmly planted down field he saw an opening, one of his receivers had broken free and was streaking towards the end zone. In that microsecond Brady realized that the only reason his backside receiver was so open had to be the result of an incoming blind side cornerback blitz.

Keeping his eyes down field Brady pumped the ball towards the middle of the field, causing the safety to freeze for half a step, which was all he needed. He quickly gathered the ball back and let loose a cannon shot towards the end zone.

Just as the ball left his fingers he looked left in time to see the corner barreling at him, full speed helmet down going for the kill shot. His body didn’t even have time to tense up as the defender impacted him, his helmet connecting with Brady’s on impact. It was the type of hit that Brady had seen many times before on film from the old NFL, the type of hit the lead the league to make the sweeping changes it had made less than five years prior.

Brady’s custom haptics vest reacted in real time, applying a tremendous amount of impact force to Brady’s upper torso, knocking him backwards to the ground and jarring loose the VR glasses strapped across his face. The force from the impact had been redistributed along his upper torso, making sure he felt the hit (and felt it hard) but protecting his body and head from any serious trauma.

Brady glanced up at the real life field in front of him just in time to see the ball fall into the arms of his receiver in stride, touchdown. Shifting the glasses back into place, he instinctively reached out to the defensive back for a hand up – a token of good sportsmanship – before quickly realizing the silliness of his action. Not only because he had just burned the other team for the game winning touchdown but because the other team was actually in another facility miles away.

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This vision of the NFL’s future may seem somewhat far fetched now, but convergent technologies are rapidly catching up to make something like this possible. When combined with a number of socio-cultural trends this future begins to look more realistic. Allow me to connect the dots on the landscape for a moment.

Read More: NFL arms race as teams sign up for VR training

 

First, let’s look at how technology and the video games industry are finding their ways into the sports world. We have seen in recent years the rise of a new type of sport not played on a field but rather in front of a computer. I’m talking, obviously, about e-sports. The rise in popularity of e-sports have been documented by many different news outlets, so we will spare you the full spiel here; but it seems to be a wildfire that is just going to keep growing at this point, having already become a “national pastime” in countries like South Korea. Alongside this e-sports revolution we have seen major sports broadcasters like ESPN begin to integrate video games into their broadcasts and coverage. From broadcasting the DOTA 2 championships, to utilizing Madden simulations in broadcast for an augmented look at plays on NFL Tonight, to even experimenting with simulating games and writing stories about them for their possible predictive knowledge, ESPN is taking a full force technological approach to sports coverage and video games are right in the center circle.

Using real-time RFID tracking of NFL players, the Next Gen Stats portion of the NFL app for Xbox One and Windows 10 shows a play in detail.

Using RFID tracking the NFL is able map player positions and advanced stats with the Next Gen Stats system (source: Microsoft, Wired)

But it’s not just ESPN who is using technology to their advantage, the NFL is hopping on board as well. Last season, the NFL entered into a partnership with Zebra Technologies to begin experimenting with embedding RFID chips in the pads of players. By placing a number of broadcast stations all around the stadium, teams are able to track things like vector data (i.e. distance traveled, speed, and direction). This season the NFL is expanding its efforts with RFID to help enhance the fan experience, bringing that tracking to every player.

According to Wired, this years edition of the NFL 2015 app for Xbox One and Windows 10 will feature the ability to use these “Next Gen Stats” to turn “each player into an digital avatar for a ‘Next Gen Replay.'” Knowing the current limitations of this technology which, according to our sources, is only accurate to within 11 inches or so it isn’t ready yet for the kind of 1:1 accuracy needed to properly achieve the vision I painted above, but that could likely change soon.

Recently I had the chance to enter the Void, an out of home virtual reality experience that I called “the most immersive experience in VR.”  While we did not get a chance to test it out we did learn more about the tracking solution the company is planning to use when they launch next year, and it sounds very promising. The solution, which has been developed in conjunction with Justin Krenzos, uses ultra wide band RF tracking to a level of effectiveness the company claims is beyond anything we have seen yet. According to the Void’s Chief Visionary Officer their solution is able to track objects with “low latency at sub millimeter accuracy,” and the company is already looking into applications for this technology beyond their current efforts with The Void. RF brings with it two major advantages, the ability to track players multiple players concurrently (because each RFID tag has it’s own ID chip) and the ability to do so wirelessly. It is reasonably safe to say that if what they claim is true this solution is only going to get better with more R&D and by attaching multiple sensors at key points on the athlete’s bodies you could capture their motion on the field 1:1.

So that possibly takes care of the tracking problem for an NFL team, but what would football be without impacts? A lot safer, but also a lot more boring.

 

The NFL is currently going through a bit of a transitional period with hard hits. As concussions and reports of NFL veterans with brain damage continue to make headlines the NFL has responded with actions to make the game more safe. Up to this point that has been things like rule changes intended to reduce head injury, a new sideline concussion protocol, and even experimentations with new helmet technologies, but many still believe the game is too dangerous. For example, youth football participation has fallen over 10% due to concerns about concussions, something many pundits worry might begin to dilute the NFL talent pool.

But at it’s core the NFL is a violent game, and hits are a major part of it, and though these changes are being made with the good of the players health in mind, many have resisted. One player in particular, James Harrison (a former All-Pro defender from the Pittsburg Steelers), likened the new rules to “flag football.”

So how do you take the hit out of the game, without taking the hit out of the game? Well, by simulating it of course.

Companies like Kor-FX and even The Void have already been developing consumer level haptic feedback vests which provide the user with a low level of impact when, for example, they are hit in the chest by a bullet. The level of feedback from these vests is nothing close to what you would need to knock an NFL player on his ass, but what about something like the recoil impact of a 5o-cal machine gun? Or even stronger?

Enter StrikerVR, who has been developing realistic haptic feedback devices for the military as well as consumers. Striker’s military grade gun controllers are able to recreate the accurate recoil force for a number of different weapons including a 50-cal machine gun meaning that when you fire it feel like you really are firing a the weapon, minus the real bullets. Given a contract from the money laden NFL, it doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility for a company like Striker to develop a suit laden with forceful haptic feedback devices placed at key points along the player’s body which could possibly recreate the level of force you might see from an NFL hit.

But what about when players engage with one another?

That is definitely a hurdle that will have to be overcome by people far smarter than myself. The inherent issue right now is that there are a number of times during each NFL play where player’s match up strength against strength, be it an offensive lineman battling a defensive lineman or a running back stiff arming a defensive back on his way to the end zone. These instances would require more than just an impact force being applied to the player, there would also need to be some form of resistance applied.

We have seen the beginnings of some of this technology already, with solutions like Dexmo, which uses an exoskeleton like apparatus to simulate resistance force on a user’s hand. Hypothetically, one could possibly apply a similar technique to a full body suit, allowing for some resistance but that isn’t something that is readily possibly right now.

The scenario above is obviously science fiction at this point, but so was virtual reality. The combination of money and need can be a powerful thing for innovation, and as VR becomes more mainstream over the next few years we will only see the technologies around it improve further. We may be ages off from a world where real people play the game through virtual reality headsets, but the NFL is already beginning to embrace the technology for training purposes with companies like STRIVR and Eon Reality leading the way. It is only a matter of time before NFL executives start thinking of other ways in which VR can be involved in the game, from improving the fan experience with livestreamed games in VR to possibly even solutions in the distant future like the vision I painted.

Who knows, maybe one day it will be human controlled drone bots competing on the actual field, a la Star Wars Episode II.

All I know is that the NFL’s concussion problem isn’t going away any time soon, and technology may be the only way for them to preserve their game, even if it takes on a slightly different form than it is today.

 

 

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