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(McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

Virtual reality smells like sweat. Or at least it did to me in the brief period I spent in that altered state, during which time I practiced sideline out of bounds plays with Washington Wizards rookies, shot some free throws with Ian Mahimni, and then wound up in Verizon Center tunnel huddling and holding hands with the entire squad just before the tip.

The Oculus Rift headset provided by the Wizards training staff didn’t look like a universe destroyer. It looked rather like something a welder would wear, and weighed about as much as a child’s toy, only it was loaded with proprietary Virtual Reality tape from Wizards workouts.

What no one can prepare you for is the extent to which the device alters space, literally rearranges the ceiling and walls around you, and persuades all of your senses. Within a few seconds your head starts whipping around like a treetop in a high wind, following the flight of existential basketballs through space. Next thing you know, your nose is convinced to go along with your eyes and ears, and starts telling you that you’re smelling the damp-towel, rubber-soled sneakery, liniment and humidity musk that’s in every professional arena.

VR is still in its clumsy, crude, awkward, unsharpened infancy — it’s not even close to where it’s going to be. Yet it’s already startlingly clear that the technology is going to change the sports experience for everyone, from player to spectator. But it’s bigger than that, really. It’s going to alter human performance, period. Among other things, VR means the death of the playbook. So long to loose-leafed binders and two-dimensional game film. One day soon playbooks will be loaded on VR devices, and this is how draft picks will learn their down screens and back cuts.

“It’s an inevitability, if you will,” said Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, who has made a big investment in the technology.

Leonsis has been ahead of most franchise owners in importing VR for his teams — he has implemented it for the Wizards, Capitals and Mystics equally — because of his belief that it’s going to affect everything from competitive edge to player development to spectator experience. The conviction is grounded in his experience at AOL, which originated as a network that connected ATARI gamers for whom VR was the grail.

The people most interested in VR are no longer gamers. They are campus lab researchers looking at ways to apply VR to everything from surgical training to bridge building. Which is how the Wizards came by their specific system, which is called STRIVR: It originated in the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, where Wizards team president Ernie Grunfeld’s son Danny was in school.


Wearing googles and headphones, basketball players get a 360-degree virtual reality view of the court. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Danny knew a Stanford football team kicker and graduate assistant named Derek Belch who studied in the lab. Belch and his professor-mentor Jeremy Bailenson founded STRIVR to explore a host of new applications of “immersive performance training,” using Stanford’s football team as their guinea pigs. Danny Grunfeld brought STRIVR to his father and Leonsis, who promptly implemented it. STRIVR’s clients now include seven NFL teams, three NBA teams, one major league baseball team, 14 collegiate programs and the U.S. ski team. All of them are toying with the STRIVR system in different ways, but they’re after the same thing: performance enhancement.

Behind any good performance is conditioning: repetitive practice, in real conditions that force the brain and body to react, and decide. “You can’t deny that doing something more often helps when it comes to decision-making,” Belch said. The trouble is that the body can only tolerate so much practice before it begins to wear down. VR is a potential solution to that. Athletes can get unlimited reps in the most realistic environment possible, even experiencing some of the same stress, just by using the goggles.

But VR’s larger impact is in speeding up learning. How humans learn is complex neuroscience, but one thing we do know is that a hierarchy of experiences leads to greater retention. Research shows that generally, people retain about 10 percent of what they read, but can remember more than 40 percent of what they watch and listen to. VR proponents have taken that concept and sprinted with it in the sports realm.

They have demonstrated that when it comes to any action that involves body coordination, full immersion learning is measurably better. Belch’s mentor Bailenson, did a study in which he compared learning Tai Chi in immersive VR to a traditional two-dimensional instructional video. Those who learned from VR performed better in every single phase of the experiment. According to STRIVR, teams can improve “recollection of key concepts by 30 percent.”

To franchise owners and general managers worried about developing expensive young draft picks, “That’s very powerful,” Leonsis said. It struck Leonsis that teams were handling their young players such as Kelly Oubre, tech savvy and living his life on the Internet playing e-games, all wrong.

“You draft players in the NBA where the kid goes to college for one year and then you put him on your team, and in the old days you’d give him a loose-leaf book with words and scribbles,” Leonsis said. “It looked like geometry homework. And you’d say ‘Well, you’re a rookie and we’ve already got starters and backups and you’re not going to participate very much, you’ll do a little in practice.’ And then we expect these players to get it. And why would we expect that when we’re not even teaching them the right way?”


Washington Wizards center with VR glasses in November 2015. The Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics are using virtual reality as a training tool. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

STRIVR is now using its clients to help amass quantifiable evidence on how the system impacts learning. Reports and data are starting to trickle in. The Detroit Pistons’ Andre Drummond corrected his free throw form last season with STRIVR, and he upped his rate by a little more than 10 percent. Teams report that it’s useful as a “slump buster,” a form of visualization to the 100-proof that allows players to feel themselves making shots instead of missing them. Quarterbacks such as Carson Palmer report upping their efficiency by using it to recognize and react to blitz packages.

“We want to be able to tell a head coach that if you put that freshman or rookie or vet in there for eight minutes a day, four days a week for a month, they will be X percent more likely to retain the info,” said Belch. In high performance sports where the margins can be fractional between winning and losing, that could be a real difference maker.

But with new power comes new complications. Who owns the rights, who gets how much of the revenue? What will people pay for it? What does it do to television? These are actually just the minor complications. More importantly, what does it do to the people who use it?

Example: Cellular phones have all but killed our need to remember phone numbers. “That’s a small phenomenon, but it’s changing the way our brains are wired on memory and recall,” Leonsis said. When it comes to sustained use of highly developed VR, “We don’t know what the unintended consequence is,” he adds.

Applying VR to human sports performance is not a trivial undertaking. The applications are potentially profound, across all professions. STRIVR has a corporate training arm for crisis management, and diversity training: It can put someone in the shoes of a person of color and show how others react to them in the workplace. It’s probable that chemistry students will learn structure by stepping inside molecules.


Ole Miss quarterback Ryan Buchanan uses a virtual reality headset to make play decisions in 2015. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

But there are a lot of things that VR still can’t do. The focus isn’t yet sharp and the viewer can’t experience full range of motion, because of something called vection, which is a form of car sickness. Basically, when your head and body do two different things, the human system doesn’t like it and produces nausea. It can only reproduce reality from a static position, which is useful for a quarterback reading options off defenses, or studying your shooting form at the free throw line, but not for dynamic movement.

Which leads to the most intriguing part of all of this: the exploration of where we stand in the competition between the human and the machine. For now, we’re still in a place to discuss human superiority. VR is just a multifaceted camera linked to a powerful computer platform. The great strengths of computers are the speed and accuracy with which they process information and solve equations. But what they lack is judgment and flexibility — when it comes to those qualities, the human head outstrips devices. VR can’t teach John Wall’s brand of leadership, or Bradley Beal’s shape-shifting creativity. It can only photograph them, and show it back to us, to celebrate, and marvel at. It can’t make narrative art, which is really what all games are.

“There’s an inevitability,” Leonsis repeated. “But will a computer be able to write a book that moves you? Will it be able to paint a picture or make a piece of art that moves you? That’s really the question.”