Virtual reality's next frontier—NFL practices

Virtual reality for sports training
Virtual reality for sports training
NFL embracing virtual reality
NFL embracing virtual reality
Sports stars talk wearables
Sports stars talk wearables

When NFL training camps kick off this weekend, No. 1 draft pick Jameis Winston will start the process that baffled many quarterbacks before him—learning plays, reading defenses and adapting to the speed of the pro game.

Yet unlike his predecessors, the newly minted Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback can do all of that without stepping on the field.

The team, which notched a woeful 2-win, 14-loss season in 2014, has signed on with Eon Sports VR, a company that uses virtual reality practice simulations to supplement training. Virtual reality is catching on in the National Football League (NFL), as teams including the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings start to use software made by Eon peer StriVR Labs.

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While the platform offers a new perspective for athletes, it may become even more vital to preventing injuries, amid growing concerns about football players' long-term health.

"What we're able to do is supplement the on-field repetitions without all the physical wear and tear," said Eon CEO Brendan Reilly in a CNBC interview Thursday.

The downside: Less fit athletes?

Source: EON Sports VR

Still a niche technology, VR headsets are slated to reach a broader market when Facebook's Oculus VR releases its consumer model in the first quarter of next year. But EON and competitor StriVR Labs already see strong interest among athletes, from professionals down to the college and high school levels.

Through Oculus headsets, EON and StriVR plant athletes in a simulated practice, where they can run through plays or scenarios. Players can look around as if they "are right there on the field," said Derek Belch, co-founder and CEO of StriVR, in a CNBC interview last week.

"Whatever they're doing at practice to prepare for the game, we put it in our simulator, and we can do it again and again," said Belch.

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The ability to take practice reps without contact comes as scrutiny surrounds the long-term effects of bone-crunching hits on NFL players. In April, a judge gave final approval to the settlement of a lawsuit brought by about 5,000 former players, many of whom will receive compensation to help treat severe neurological disorders.

The software applications can go well beyond football, said Belch. StriVR has started to talk to some professional baseball and basketball teams about using the platform, but Belch would not confirm who was interested.

Virtual reality could benefit athletes in golfing, boxing and racing, as well, said Manish Tripathi, a marketing professor at Emory University who studies sports marketing. He noted that golfers like two-time major champion Jordan Spieth have already used VR simulations to prepare for specific courses. Tripathi added that the technology will become more feasible as manufacturers develop lighter, "less cumbersome" headsets.

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Despite the benefits, the platform could create problems. The quality of simulators may lead some athletes—particularly kids—to abandon the real game and the exercise that comes with it, Tripathi said.

"A big drawback would be if people start using this as a substitute rather than a complement for athletics," he said. That would be in addition to pre-existing complaints that VR technology sometimes causes disorientation or sickness.

Eon's Reilly acknowledged that "there's still work to do" to address complaints of motion sickness with VR devices. But he said that Eon users have not experienced broad issues with nausea.