PORTLAND, Ore. — Recruiting. Coaching. Training. Fans. Retail. Photography. Media.
Immersive virtual reality technology may impact the sports industry in more ways than you might think.
HeadcaseVR co-founder Lucas Foster gave a brief-yet-fascinating talk at the TechFestNW conference in Portland, Ore. on Monday morning, highlighting how his company is utilizing virtual reality in the sports world.
Foster is a long-time Hollywood veteran, having produced or supervised more than 50 feature films like Bad Boys, Crimson Tide, Man On Fire, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Law Abiding Citizen, and others.
He took the entrepreneurial plunge two years ago and teamed up with four others to launch HeadcaseVR, a virtual reality startup with offices in Los Angeles and Portland. The company is developing projects for clients like Nike and Chevy, along with a handful of sports leagues and teams that are using new technology to do everything from recruit high schools athletes to establish new retail avenues.
Foster said there are two pillars to HeadcaseVR: Technology and storytelling.
“We have two rules at our company: Don’t make people sick and don’t bore them,” he noted.
On the technical side, HeadcaseVR is innovating in a variety of ways. For example, the company does quite a bit of “depth data capture,” which uses 360-degree cameras and sensors to help teams access new data and analytics, like how many seconds a football was in the air for, or how fast it was thrown.
“We are taking that data and ingesting it and outputting it in various ways that is useful to coaches and athletes,” Foster said.
HeadcaseVR is also developing wearable camera solutions, haptic and sensory integration, 3D sound, and “live preview,” which lets directors preview in real-time how their footage will appear to someone using a virtual reality device.
This technology allows HeadcaseVR to let players and coaches review game film in a much different way, for example. Traditionally, athletes will watch video on a flat screen that was recorded from a far-away perch like a press box. Virtual reality changes this.
“I’m not sure you can learn much from watching fairly small objects moving around a field,” Foster said. “We are giving a player point-of-view for game film.”
HeadcaseVR, which competes with other companies like STRIVR and EON Sports, also helps programs like the University of Michigan work with players on a more individual basis, developing virtual coaching applications that let coaches send content to athletes that is specifically geared to his or her discipline. The big idea is to “help manage interactions with athletes,” Foster said.
“Unlike what happens now, where a coach talks to a large group of people, they can talk to one guy about his specific issues and help that athlete,” he added.
The company is also experimenting with eye-tracking technology, which will allow coaches to figure out exactly where an athlete was looking during a play, or infrared cameras that give coaches a better view of what happened on the field.
HeadcaseVR goes beyond just football training and also develops virtual reality content for recruits, who can strap on a headset and get a feel for what it’s like playing in front of 100,000 fans at the Big House, or what a walk through campus might be like.
“Coaches would take it to people’s houses and show them how the University of Michigan would operate its football program,” Foster noted. “It was a virtual tour of an attitude or a feeling. It worked really well.”
I just tried a quick demo of a reel showing the perspective of a Michigan football player on game day, from getting off the team bus to walking on the field to rallying together with teammates and coaches in the locker room. Combined with some dramatic music, it definitely left a lasting impression on me.
“It’s an entirely new way to communicate with people,” Foster said. ” In trying to trigger an emotion in the viewer, it’s a more effective tool for triggering that emotion — whether it’s fear, sadness, excitement, or whatever. It’s something that you will feel more vividly.”
Here’s a preview of work HeadcaseVR did with Oregon State University:
There are also media-related applications coming from HeadcaseVR. Foster said the company is building cameras into jerseys that will let fans watch sports from completely new angles. It can also give coaches and players new perspectives of what happens on the field, like inside the football huddle, for example.
“We think it’s the future of all sports photography,” Foster said.
There are applications for fan engagement, too. Headcase is in talks with an NFL team to build a 360-degree theater inside a stadium, allowing fans get a behind-the-scenes look and “be on the field” to get a feel for what players are experiencing.
“They think it’s powerful, and so do we,” Foster said.
Another use case is retail, where Headcase is working with a “famous brand in Portland” — Nike or Adidas, likely — to use virtual reality and 360-degree video to amplify the buying experience for consumers.
“Imagine instead of just talking to a regular sales associate, it’s LeBron James selling you a pair of shoes and telling you why you should buy those shoes and why he wears them,” Foster said. “You’re having a first-person interaction with him, or any sports star in any discipline.”
Foster was adamant about the storytelling aspect of his company’s work, noting how the “grammar of VR” is so different than any other storytelling medium given the perspective and experience for the viewer.
“There is an art to this,” he said. “It’s all in the way you put these things together that separates the men from the boys, if you will.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect that STRIVR also produces recruiting-related content.