Rice Football Is Changing the Learning Curve With Virtual Reality

Pretend for a moment that we’re eight weeks into the 2015 college football season. It’s a crisp Friday night in Houston in late October, and all eyes of a national television audience are on Rice Stadium. It’s the fourth quarter of a tie game against Louisiana Tech. Heading into the 2015 season, these were your two favorites to win the West division of Conference USA. This game has validated that opinion.

Rarely is the spotlight so bright and so exclusive to Rice football, but tonight it is. On this night, though, the team’s senior quarterback, Driphus Jackson, has left the game with an injury. As fate would have it, next on the quarterback depth chart is true freshman J.T. Granato, seeing his first collegiate action. Amazingly, Granato calmly leads the team down the field for what will eventually be the winning field goal, converting two crucial third downs along the way in the face of multiple Bulldog blitz packages.

This game is the difference in the standings, the difference in the season. Rice goes on to win the 2015 C-USA title, attend its fourth straight bowl and continue this stretch of four seasons as one of the best programs in the nation outside the Power Five.

Okay, now back to the here and now. The scenario presented above in which the senior quarterback is shelved for a true freshman is purely hypothetical and far from ideal (if you’re Rice). But the good programs efficiently prepare for all contingencies. Rice is a good football program, 24-9 in its last 33 games.

But Rice’s program and school are more than that. They’re thinkers, and the latest example of Rice as one of college football’s “early adopters” makes it far more likely that an 18-year-old freshman can come into a tie game cold off the bench and lead the Owls’ offense down the field in a crucial situation in an actual game, not some imaginary scenario.

STRIVR Labs, Inc. is an industry leader in what the company calls “immersive training,” a technology better known by most as “virtual reality.” For years, virtual reality was thought of more as a mechanism for astronauts to simulate outer-space journeys or for teenagers to shoot digital bad guys. STRIVR is introducing its brand of virtual reality to the world of football. Its interactive solution has been adopted by a small handful of NFL and college teams. Rice is the first school in Conference USA to sign on with STRIVR.

“We’re very excited about making virtual reality part of our preparation process,” says Rice head coach David Bailiff. “We think that this gives our young men, particularly our quarterbacks, a great chance to continue our success.”

Derek Belch, a former Stanford football player, founded STRIVR Labs as part of his master’s thesis last year when he was a graduate assistant for the Cardinal football team. “When I was a graduate assistant, I presented virtual reality as a way to help our quarterbacks with blitz pickup,” says Belch. “[Stanford head coach] David Shaw said, ‘Hey, you really got something here. You should really pursue this.’” Shaw believed in Belch’s vision enough that he not only used the technology, but invested in Belch’s company.

The key differentiator for STRIVR is that players using the Oculus Rift (virtual-reality-speak for “goggles”) are seeing actual footage of real human beings, not cartoonish video-game graphics. This was a key for Bailiff. “We looked at a virtual-reality solution five years ago, but the graphics were hokey,” Bailiff says. “What STRIVR is bringing is totally different; it truly feels ‘real.’”

There’s a lot of work that goes into putting the “real” in a virtual-reality solution, but ultimately that’s the secret sauce in what STRIVR does. “Our studies show that if it’s just a video game re-creation, players check out,” Belch explains. “We use real video with footage of real human beings.” The work will actually begin this week with STRIVR’s implementation team spending days on Rice’s campus filming players in various formations and shifts so they can begin using the technology to prepare for the 2015 season.

So Rice has unquestionably been diligent in finding a company with whom to partner on this branch of game preparation. The broader message in the school’s decision, though, is in the Owls’ continued forward thinking to try to enhance the college experience for their student-athletes and operate more efficiently within the changing college football landscape.

The two biggest “hot-button” issues relating to college football players’ quality of life are football’s physical toll and its time demands. Virtual-reality training addresses both of these. It allows situational game practice without the need for players to actually be on the football field. With virtual-reality training, “run the play” means pressing a button, not having a bunch of players smash helmets (and brains) several dozen times. This interactive technology also allows players to prepare at odd times of the day as best suits their schedules, a key for a university like Rice where academic demands can make normalcy a challenge.

Perhaps most important, from a football and learning perspective, is that STRIVR’s offering allows all players on the depth chart, particularly quarterbacks, to get nearly equal situational training. In the past, only the starter would get situational reps in practice because in our actual, non-goggled, real world, real human beings can only watch one group of real players. Virtual reality allows all the quarterbacks to prepare simultaneously in first-person point of view situations. Reps for everyone!

It’s this accelerated learning that will make Rice’s young players advance faster than the young players on opposing teams. It’s what allowed J.T. Granato to lead the winning drive in our virtually realistic, entirely hypothetical win over Louisiana Tech.

“I had one NFL quarterback from a team who is now a client say that if he had this technology when he was a rookie, it would’ve accelerated his learning curve by five years,” Belch says.

So if this virtual-reality solution is so groundbreaking, then why isn’t everyone doing it? Certainly, for some colleges at least, cost can be an issue. “It’s not cheap,” Belch smiles and says matter-of-factly.

However, resistance is more about the culture of football and head coaches fearing the unknown. “The biggest objection we get, quite honestly, is a fear of change,” Belch explains. “Some coaches are comfortable with the status quo. What we’re doing requires a degree of forward thinking.”

So it’s logical then that if STRIVR Labs is driving the bus toward this revolution in football training, Rice University would be calling “shotgun.” After all, this is a university that’s consistently ranked among the best in the world in entrepreneurial studies. Why shouldn’t the football program share that same spirit of innovation?

Bailiff has always embraced Rice’s rigorous academic standards as a selling point in recruiting, not an obstacle. Those standards stem from the same visionary tree wherein a school sees a way to invest in technology to keep its football players healthier and make them more successful, and decides, “Let’s go for it!” In the most basic terms, STRIVR’s offering makes the Owls’ student-athletes better students and better athletes.

“STRIVR’s best selling point is that we help with decision-making,” Belch says. “The best players are the ones who make the best decisions.”

The same can be said for the best universities.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanTPendergast or email him at sean.pendergast@cbsradio.com.

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