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Walmart associates are using STRIVR’s virtual reality technology to improve their skills. Photo via STRIVR.

STRIVR made a name for itself in the sports world as one of the top startups using virtual reality to help professional and college teams train their players.

But in the past few months, the business opportunity for STRIVR has skyrocketed beyond sports — that’s what happens when a giant like Walmart comes knocking on the door.

Founded in 2015 by former Stanford football kicker Derek Belch and Stanford associate professor Jeremy Bailenson, STRIVR has developed a virtual reality platform used by teams across all the big sports leagues. Players strap on a headset and use STRIVR’s software to watch immersive, 360-degree video recorded from a given perspective on the field or court. They can repeatedly review the play from a first-person view and look in any direction; the idea is to make players feel like they’re on the field and to help improve decision-making without having to strap on practice gear.

Derek Belch speaks at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit 2016.

But now the company has realized its technology is valuable for customers outside of sports. This summer it announced a deal with Walmart, which will use STRIVR’s platform to train employees at more than 200 of its Walmart Academy learning centers that educate more than 140,000 employees per year. Trainees will use virtual reality much like athletes, wearing headsets to get a feel for what it’s like to work in actual stores.

“VR allows associates to experience a lifelike store environment to experiment, learn and handle difficult situations without the need to recreate disruptive incidents or disturb the customers’ shopping experience,” Walmart wrote in a blog post. “Ultimately, everything associates do is geared toward giving customers the best experience. Through VR, associates can see how their actions affect that. It’s helpful for associates to see mistakes in a virtual environment and know how to deal with them before they experience it in real life and don’t know what to do.”

STRIVR has also partnered with United Rentals, which will use virtual reality in the same way, training employees on safety and sales training in virtual construction sites.

Belch said these deals have been a “wake-up call” for his startup and noted that the opportunity beyond sports is “1000X,” particularly with sports-related challenges like old school coaches or limited budgets.

“There are only so many teams,” Belch told GeekWire. “The revenue opportunities outside of sports are immensely larger, and there are different use cases.”

STRIVR is applying the same formula it uses to help the world’s top athletes train, and using it for a Walmart store employee or a factory worker. Belch noted that if his startup can get NFL quarterbacks using virtual reality, “we can probably get anyone to use VR.”

“The content changes, but the approach and idea behind an infinite number of mental repetitions to better prepare you for your job is almost identical,” he added.

A SXSW attendee tries out STRIVR’s technology at the festival in Austin, Texas earlier this year. (GeekWire photo)

Sports is still an important vertical for STRIVR. The company, which works with eight NFL teams, 14 NCAA squads, and a handful of others in leagues like the NBA and NHL, has built new features into its software that provide coaches with more assessment opportunities. That ranges from measuring reaction times or creating custom tests; teams are also able to better benchmark players against one another based on their performance with the software.

“We’re building a fairly holistic profile of how a player interacts in a virtual environment,” Belch said.

STRIVR is also collecting a massive amount of data. It now has 200,000 individual uses of its software; that data helps the company better understand the impact of its product and virtual training overall. It also helps improve the value of STRIVR’s technology as coaches begin to rely on virtual reality training for decision-making.

Belch said the company is taking learnings from its work with non-sports customers to improve the product for athletes, and vice versa.

“Now our innovation cycle is 365 days a year, as opposed to six months of the year,” Belch said.

The startup is also expanding its sports work beyond athletes, as it recently announced that the NFL is using STRIVR to train officials. It’s also developing an implicit-bias training tool for coaches, front office staff, and league staff at NFL HQ.

Though STRIVR has top teams and companies using its technology, Belch said that it’s still early days. He noted challenges with limited hardware and how some coaches aren’t convinced that virtual reality can actually help improve performance.

Teams are also being “bombarded” by different tech-related products every day, Belch noted.

“We compete with new weight equipment budget; video needs; stadium renovations,” he said. “There are so many things thrown at teams constantly. Sometimes the really legitimate stuff gets lost in the shuffle.”

So what does STRIVR’s success thus far say about the virtual reality industry? While consumer adoption of VR may have been slower than expected, Belch said the value is clear for teams like the Dallas Cowboys and companies like Walmart.

“For some reason, there’s growing sentiment out there that the VR is on the decline … that the technology is entering ‘the trough of disillusionment’ … that AR is going to dwarf VR … that VR is niche and only for gamer … the list goes on,” he wrote in a blog post. “That couldn’t be any further from the truth. The reality of virtual reality, in fact, is that we are in the ‘things are actually happening’ phase. It’s not ‘if’ anymore, it’s ‘how’ are people and companies using VR and ‘what,’ specifically, are they doing.”

STRIVR has 54 employees and raised $5 million last year; the NFL’s investment arm, 32Equity, participated in the round.

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