Minnesota Vikings fans will probably never forgive Blair Walsh for missing that chip-shot field goal that cost the team a playoff victory over the Seahawks. They probably still haven’t forgiven Gary Anderson for his miss in the NFC Championship game in 1999.
Ah, but what if they could walk a mile – or kick a ball 27 yards – in those players’ cleats? When Vikings fans get to see their new football facility, U.S. Bank Stadium, which opens this fall, a virtual reality experience will go helmet-in-helmet with the games themselves.
Vikings Voyage, the stadium’s 10,000-square foot interactive area, will feature virtual reality stations that will allow fans to experience what it’s like to take part in pass-catching, shuttle drills and vertical jumps, as well as crashing into a blocking pad to measure impact force.
“We know we want to tell a story, but first, let’s talk about the technology that’s there and what fun things we can do,” Vikings Director of Brand & Creative Erin Swartz said in a statement. “So things like virtual reality, for example, to the level we can do that now, is kind of exciting technology [that] is going to trace your body as it jumps in the air or watch if you’re catching a pass, and we expect it to get better.”
Virtual reality technology is becoming a major part of the NFL experience, but not merely for fans who can go to stadiums in Minneapolis, Tampa and Jacksonville and take part in various forms of 3-D interactive virtual NFL simulation.
The Buccaneers are using VR simulations, featuring quarterback Jameis Winston, to educate fans about the $140 million in renovations currently taking place at Raymond James Stadium.
“The addition of ‘The New Raymond James Stadium Experience’ allows us to showcase all of the exciting changes that are taking place in preparation for the upcoming season. While there’s nothing quite like attending a Buccaneers game in person at Raymond James Stadium,” Bucs COO Brian Ford told buccaneers.com. “The PreView Center, through the use of innovative technology, allows us to simulate the experience and provide potential members with a great representation of what they can look forward to this fall.”
In Jacksonville, the State Farm Neighborhood Fan Cave allows fans to use VR headseats to watch Jaguars games from the perspective of being on the sideline.
“This is another example of the kind of in-stadium innovation we are bringing to the game day experience that we want to make available for our fans,” Jaguars Senior VP of Fan Engagement Hussain Naqi told jaguars.com. “Not only can fans be on site to enjoy the atmosphere, they can utilize offerings like this Virtual Reality based technology to experience the game in a totally new way.”
That same technology that brings fans these unique and personal perspectives about the ground-level playing of NFL football is also being utilized by the teams themselves for its players. No less than six NFL teams currently use VR technology to simulate practice conditions for players, especially those who are unable to take the “real-world” field because of injury.
“Truthfully, I’m surprised it hasn’t grown faster based on some of the results we have seen,” Derek Belch, CEO of STRIVR Labs, a virtual reality company with seven NFL teams as investors, told techcrunch.com earlier this month. “There are a lot of reasons why football is a good fit [for VR].”
After filming a set of a team’s plays from various vantage points using GoPro technology, the videos are uploaded and formatted for VR playback. Players then attach the VR headset and are placed in the position simulated on the field, allowing them to experience the play – and make the appropriate reads – without pads or contact.
“I don’t think it’s going to prevent injuries,” Belch said. “There’s nothing better than actual, physical practice on the field. But I will say because we saw it last year and we’ll see it again, I’m injured and can’t practice and shouldn’t practice on a Thursday or Friday and so instead of practice, I go into VR. I don’t think we’re going to prevent injuries, but I think we may be able to help players to keep their bodies fresh when they are injured and prevent further injuries.”
The NFL is even using virtual reality to make players better off the field. The same VR technology used to simulate life on the field can re-create real-life scenarios that can teach players about gender and racial issues.
“VR can deliver on real social issues that allow people to be better,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, told USA Today. “We’ll start using this as another teaching tool later this year. We want to be known as the best place to work.”
Vincent and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell have visited Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab to learn about empathy issues, using VR technology we typically associate with quarterback training.
“He came here to learn about empathy,” Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson told SB Nation. “He really wanted to understand how to think about issues of race, issues of gender. A lot of our lab’s research is about having people think about becoming someone else, and that’s why Goodell came.”
But for all the social good that virtual reality can create, being able to simulate playing and watching the game from field level is what will grab fans’ fancy as more stadiums embrace the interactive technology.
“If you could actually beam that experience to people where you’re sitting next to your favorite player, you look to your right and you see them and you look ahead and the coach is there firing up the team,” Max Cohen, head of mobile at Oculus, a virtual reality company, told Tech Times last November. “That’s something that is less about the money of going to the game but about creating that emotional connection in a deeper way that you can’t normally get from watching that thing on a TV.”
Image courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings.
This article first appeared in the weekly Football Stadium Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Football Stadium Digest newsletter.