One recent afternoon, following the Washington Wizards’ regularly scheduled practice, Marcin Gortat met briefly with team trainers, showered, changed and then strolled onto the court at Verizon Center, where one of the team’s video analysts was waiting.
“I never tried this before,” Gortat told Aaron Paul, “but I heard it’s freaky.”
Paul handed Gortat the headset — giant black goggles that covered his eyes and half his face — and on a nearby laptop Paul cued up a video.
“Oh, my God,” Gortat said, spinning around to survey his surroundings. “This is so . . . crazy.”
Paul helps run the Wizards’ new virtual reality initiative and explained that inside the headset, Gortat had suddenly been transported into the middle of a football huddle. A ball was about to be snapped his way, and a linebacker would blitz from one side. Sure enough, standing in a basketball arena, Gortat found a football player barreling toward him.
“Oh, damn! . . . I was about to punch him,” Gortat said.
This was just a primer for the Wizards forward. Unlike several of his teammates, he had yet to take the new training tool on a test drive. The Wizards and the Washington Capitals this season became the first NBA and NHL teams to use virtual reality in their training. Both squads are still in the early stages of implementing the technology and figuring how training in a virtual world can translate to performing better outside it.
“But the opportunities are endless,” Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld said.
In August, Monumental Sports, which owns the Wizards, Capitals and the WNBA’s Mystics, contracted with STRIVR Labs, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based company that had worked almost exclusively with football teams for the past year. The company outfitted the Washington teams with headsets and cameras and encouraged them to experiment.
While early virtual reality simulations more closely resembled animated video games, STRIVR immerses players in a live action world that wraps completely around them. A baseball batter might be staring down a 90-mph curveball or a soccer player might be protecting a goal. Look up and they might see sky. Look down and they will see sneakers.
STRIVR is still barely a year old and hadn’t yet made big strides with hockey and basketball when the Washington teams signed up. Its CEO, Derek Belch, is a former place kicker for the Stanford football team and stuck around as a quality control coach. With the permission of Stanford Coach David Shaw, he began working last year with the school’s acclaimed Virtual Human Interaction Lab, using the headsets with players. Fast forward less than a year, and his company is now working with seven NFL teams and 13 college programs.
Grunfeld’s son, Dan, helped introduce virtual reality to the Washington teams. He was a college classmate at Stanford with Belch. The two met in New York in the spring, and Belch explained his project and soon was giving Wizards officials a demonstration in Las Vegas, where they had gathered for the NBA Summer League.
Grunfeld was sold right away and was eager to show team owner Ted Leonsis. Within weeks, STRIVR was in Washington handing Leonsis a headset. Leonsis always has one eye open for the latest technological advancements, and he had seen virtual reality progress over the years. But he had never seen a detailed, sports-specific application as STRIVR had developed.
“All of a sudden, you’re in the play,” Leonsis said. “You look around and see people in the stands, look up and birds are flying. You could hear coach yelling. Then you take the snap, and you realize I have one second to throw the ball and these big men are chasing me. You understand more about what a quarterback experiences in those few seconds than all the games you’d watched in your life. It was amazing.”
Needless to say, Leonsis didn’t need much time to deliberate.
“I put the goggles on and said we got to be the first ones to do this,” Leonsis said.
Leonsis told his teams to figure out the best way to use the technology, even though there wasn’t a blueprint for a basketball or hockey team. As Gortat saw, the football scenario was a useful and natural application. The user assumes the point of view of the quarterback, stands stationary in the pocket as he reads the defense and watches the play unfold around him. Sports such as basketball or hockey aren’t quite as simple.
“One very simple reason,” Belch said. “Movement.”
Teams using the STRIVR system receive a tripod with six GoPro cameras linked together in a way that records everything surrounding them. The footage is then stitched together to create a seamless environment. But the tripod doesn’t move, and thus the user wearing the headset is locked in place in the virtual world.
“In basketball, hockey, soccer, you just move around a lot. The game is played on the run,” Belch said.
For the Wizards and Capitals, there has been some trial and error and plenty of brainstorming. The Capitals have to be careful while filming practice on the ice to make sure a player — or a puck — doesn’t crash into the tripod. They also have started to stick the cameras to the glass with a suction-cup device to make them less intrusive.
“For hockey, I think you want the cameras as close to what would feel like someone’s eyes — same height, location,” said Brett Leonhardt, the Capitals’ video coach. “On the ice, the goalie is somewhat stationary, and there are other certain things, special teams, faceoffs.”
The Capitals have been recording footage during special teams practices, positioning the cameras at points on the ice where a player might be mostly stationary with decisions to make: perhaps in front of the net on a penalty kill, for example, or near the boards on a power play. They have filmed the team’s goalies inside the crease during controlled shooting so they can study technique and movements.
“The technology is obviously pretty cool,” Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said. “I think we’re all still trying to understand how exactly we’d use it. I mean, I see all of this stuff every day in real life.”
The Wizards took the system to their training camp in Towson in September while they were still figuring out the best use. “Hey, listen, I’m all for if anything’s there to help you,” Coach Randy Wittman said then: “I don’t know enough about it yet to know if it’s going to benefit, how far or what we can really do.”
Wizards rookie Kelly Oubre Jr. is an early adopter and devoted disciple. He says he regularly puts the headset on before he hits the court. “I automatically saw a difference,” he said. “I automatically saw my percentage go up.”
Studies lend some credence to Oubre’s observations. Researchers at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab found that immersive virtual reality provides better learning of physical movements than a two-dimensional video. And a 2013 French study found that long jumpers who visualized their jumps ahead of time turned in a higher percentage of success 35 percent of the time, and jumpers who went through the actual motion of the jump — not unlike a golfer taking practice swings or a baseball batter in the on-deck circle — performed better 45 percent of the time.
Another study at the University of Chicago found that a group improved its free throw shooting by 23 percent after simply visualizing free throws for a month.
Oubre says in the virtual reality headset, he focuses more on technique, identifies areas of emphasis — feet placement, hand movement, arc of shot — and can seamlessly translate the quick shot thoughts to the court. It’s something he thinks would be helpful immediately before games and even at halftime if his shooting feels off.
“You just replicate it. I can’t even explain how great it is,” he said.
Oubre is 19 years old and loves new gadgets. He’s more versed in the virtual reality possibilities than his teammates, and team officials have built him a deeper virtual catalogue. “He’s a lot younger than us,” teammate Garrett Temple said. “He’s into that techie stuff. I grew up with coaches telling us to go home, close your eyes and visualize making a shot. This is the next level, I guess.”
Temple has worn the headset and is impressed, but like many teammates, it hasn’t yet become part of his daily routine.
STRIVR officials are cautious when they try to quantify the success of virtual reality. “We just want to be smart about it,” Belch said. “For basketball, hey, maybe it’s not good for eight out of 10 things, but it's phenomenal for two. And those two help you win four more games in a year. That’s the win.”
On the Wizards’ court at Verizon, Gortat found himself immersed in a virtual world. He mimicked shooting jumpers and shook his head when he finally removed the headset.
“This is unbelievable,” he said.
He thought for a few seconds and listed a few ways the technology can aid his training, telling Paul, the Wizards’ video assistant, that he would be back for more. Neither the Wizards nor Capitals have all the kinks figured out, but in this experimentation stage, they’re eager for the players to take an active interest.
“It will never replace actually doing it in real time,” Leonsis said. “But I think it’s the next best thing.”