How VR is changing training in sport

Sep 12, 2018

A virtual reality headset resting on grass

In one of our most recent posts, we told of how technology is finding its position in football, helping provide sporting justice, reduce errors and enhance viewing. Within, we promised a piece that'd touch on how XR is changing training in sport.

We're a bunch that stick to our word. To get a more hands-on insight into how XR is helping athletes, we wanted to find someone who has been active in the development of immersive training solutions and who has experience of the sport sector.

Enter Vin Sumner, Managing Director & Founder of Manchester-based VR company, Clicks and Links.

A former colleague of hedgehog lab's Chief XR Officer, Shaun Allan, Vin touched on his organisation's work in sport at a recent Innovate Now event - making him the perfect man to get in touch with for a chat.

Within this interview, we quiz Vin on the current state and future of immersive training in sports, and discover why the best is yet to come. 


Interviewing Vin Sumner.


Vin Sumner presents at Innovate Now - EdtechVin presents at Innovate Now 6. Picture by Harry Ronchetti. 

Before we delve into VR in sport, can you tell us a little about yourself, your role with Clicks & Links and the company itself?

"I've spent over 30 years in the IT and Digital industries, working for large and small software providers. I founded Clicks and Links in 2000, where I have remained Managing Director since.

"Since its inception, Clicks & Links has focused on the application of innovative and emerging technologies. From 2004, the early days of Second Life, we have increasingly concentrated on serious applications of virtual worlds."

"We've built Clicks and Links into one of the United Kingdom's leading suppliers of virtual and augmented reality applications, and have completed work for customers across the retail, nuclear, rail, medical and construction sectors."

Can you expand further on some of the work you've carried out for such clients?

"Our work in the immersive arena started over a decade ago in Second Life. In the earliest days, we also built virtual concert halls for live streaming, virtual schools for use in consultations, virtual cities and virtual training platforms for a customer in the oil industry.

"Nowadays we have also expanded into the development of augmented reality and 360-degree video-based solutions. We've built interactive training applications for the likes of Co-op, J Murphy and EDF.

"Our VR bike ride simulator used real-world scanned data to bring a virtual Manchester to life, allowing users to familiarise and get comfortable with the idea of riding a bike through the city.

"Elsewhere, our eXperium collaboration platform allows sub-sectors of engineering (such as nuclear, rail and construction) to inspect and plan through access to CAD/Lidar/Photogrammetry imagery in Virtual Reality.

"On the augmented reality front, we've been pretty active in healthcare, creating training applications in both dentistry and surgery."

At the moment and as with your own experiences with Clicks and Links suggests, immersive training experiences seem to be adopted mostly by industries such as manufacturing. Do you think immersive training has a place in sport?

"There is definitely an opportunity in sport. In fact, I think in time immersive or experiential training will become the norm.

"For me, there are probably three aspects that you can split sports training into. These are physical training (which includes injury recovery), technical skills and decision-making. Decision-making is of particular importance as it is often that which distinguishes the best athletes and teams from the rest.

"A few years ago we recreated some football matches virtually and used a virtual reality headset to place a user in certain situations throughout the game. We then asked users to tell us what the next action would be before showing them how play transpired.

"At the time, the technology wasn't quite there to develop it into a more meaningful tool for clubs to adopt, but we are getting closer to quality immersion all the time, and we can expect to see progress in such areas sooner than later."

A goalkeeper collects a crossVin believes the best is yet to come for VR in sport. Image by David Clarke.

hedgehog lab and Clicks and Links are currently collaborating on a project dubbed F3, which features the use of tech in sport. Can you tell us more about the project?

"The Football Fans of the Future project is a bid we're currently working on and submitting to Innovate UK. On a basic level, it is all about exploring how immersive technologies can enhance the experiences of football fans in the host area, at the stadium and even at home, before during and after games.

"The project is backed by a stellar consortium of organisations, including the likes of Manchester City and Preston North End, BT Sport, The Football Fans Federation, The National Football Museum and Manchester City Council. Of course, ourselves (Clicks and Links) and hedgehog lab are also backing the bid.

"We'll hear whether we have made the shortlist in the near future, but whether or not we are successful in our bid, we hope to find a way to fund and progress the project."

Finally, can you tell us the most impressive use of immersive technology you've seen in sport?

"To some degree, I'm still waiting to see a game-changing use. However, with XR already opening up changes in viewing experiences and revolutionising areas such as rehab, the floodgates are starting to open.

"For me, it will be the experiences that put the fans in the position of the players, those that put the user in the player's boots will be those that win the audiences. We hope that the work that we're undertaking with F3 will go some way to implementing this in football, at least."


Immersive training in sport.


A man wearing a VR headset on a tennis courtVin believes that VR will be a gamechanger for sports fans. Image by Martin Sanchez.

Immersive technologies possess the potential to revolutionise how supporters interact with their favourite athletes and teams. Whether it is via placing users in situations previously faced by the world's finest sportspeople or even more straightforward applications like allowing supporters to plan a trip ahead of time by bringing venues to them virtually, it's clear that at some point VR will be delivered to the mainstream. Of course, we hope that F3 will be at the forefront of this.

But, personally, what arouses interest isn't just in ways sporting organisations are going to accommodate XR for fans. I support the 41st worst team in Scottish senior football (and there are only 42 in total - big thanks to Cowdenbeath for being worse). Naturally, I want to know how immersive tech could help change our fortunes.

Owing to Vin's experience, we now know we can split sports training into three rough areas - physical, technical and mental. Below, we'll explore some of the most impressive applications currently being adopted across sports. 


Physical training & rehabilitation.


One hot topic across pretty much any contact sport in recent years is concussion. Over in the States, the NFL has come under fire for a negligent approach to advice and rulings on head injuries sustained during the action. 

The hard-hitting nature of the sport means such incidents are inevitable. Also certain are the long-lasting effects of repetitive brain traumas. 

Countless studies add incredible weight to the notion that by sustaining such injuries repeatedly, athletes are at risk of developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease that causes the brain to deteriorate.

An American football forward is tackled by defendersThis kind of rough landing isn't uncommon in American Football. Image by John Tarcasio.

It's an issue which also applies closer to home. Jeff Astle is perhaps the most-famed case having developed CTE by heading rock-hard leather footballs over his career.

In both sports, rulings on head injuries are now a lot stricter. Provided the brain is allowed the time to recover, the vast majority of injuries are not serious. Accordingly, governing bodies have moved to rule that any player with a concussion must leave the field of play. 

However, methods of identifying concussion in sport are still somewhat outdated. In football, for example, a pitch-side doctor is present and must make a call based on more basic, but less reliable methods of examination.

Dr Michael Grey is one person looking to improve the accuracy of concussion diagnosis. Lending the help of virtual reality and more specifically a £500 Oculus Rift device, the Rehabilitation Neuroscientist has developed a solution that swiftly allows medics to detect more subtle changes. 

The application takes the variables out of the equation. No longer will a determined player's own will to continue put them at risk. What's more, devices are available at a very accessible price, meaning we should expect to see VR in some of the world's most-loved impact sports soon.

Elsewhere, applications are already available to take the endless physicality out of American Football training. STRIVR is already working with multiple NFL teams to provide high-quality virtual sessions that ensure clashes are only virtual.


Technical training.


As Vin pointed out earlier, certain elements still aren't quite where they need to be to bring immersive sports training to the fore. There's an argument that this is of particular truth concerning technical training, where both data accuracy and motion sensing is of vital importance.

For that reason, my beloved Berwick Rangers aren't likely to conduct Tuesday night training with a headset plonked on top of their heads any time soon. Even with advancements, the cost to implement anything of any decent value for clubs will be accessible to only those with cabinets full of silverware.

However, in areas where data is much easier to capture and sports where motions are a little more basic, virtual reality is already making a difference. Skiing is a perfect example of this.

World-class athletes are already embracing immersive skiing simulators. Not only addressing an obvious issue of being unable to ski on snow for three quarters of the year, such platforms also capture lateral movement and acceleration accurately across different courses - perfect for the pro skier to practice ahead of upcoming tournaments.


SkyTechSport, developers of the Ski Simulator featured in the video above, travel the slopes to collect the ski trails of the Olympics, enabling athletes to ski on mountains in virtual reality before ever going to the racecourse.

The benefits of this are twofold. Firstly, the simulator allows for repetition. In the high-paced sport of skiing, this is pivotal and provides a much more powerful method of training for a particular course than the former standard of video. Athletes can repeatedly perform turns and piece together their perfect route - and they're free to do it at any time.

Formerly, training for courses came via arduously studying footage recorded from only one point of view. The ski simulator not only allows for repetition but enables users to scope out angles for themselves. Haptic feedback ensures skiers know about their mistakes and users can even crash. Users can analyse their performances and begin to solve their own problems. Video can offer none of this.  

Looking for proof this works? Look no further than American alpine skier, Mikaela Shiffrin, who employed a VR intensive training regime (developed by the aforementioned STRIVR) before the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The result? A gold medal.


Mental training.


Perhaps the most exciting potential use of immersive training in sport concerns improved decision making, knowledge and mental strength.

Though advances in data and tracking may not have matched the required rate, football clubs are still adopting virtual reality as a training tool. If it isn't entirely accurate, why?

Well, just because it isn't entirely accurate for technical training doesn't mean it is altogether useless. Indeed, former World Cup winners Germany moved to partner a developer to bring XR training to players throughout their system - ranging from youths to senior pros. 

virtual_reality_oculusVR is already helping boost tactical awareness and decision-making. Image by Lux Interaction.

The platforms will employ match data to recreate previous match scenarios, or even allow coaches to create custom-built situations for players to analyse and work through.

Broken down into four areas, the solution includes a focus on decision-making, positional awareness, in-game scenarios and timed training tasks. Ultimately, the aim is to improve tactical knowledge and reaction times, while also allowing players to step into the boots of their colleagues to see situations differently.

Smaller clubs can see the benefit, too. Blackpool FC coaches are using a similar programme, with Manager Gary Bowyer reporting benefits across the board, ranging from coaching, rehab and team-building, and players themselves noticing improvements in awareness and decision-making. 


In the mixer.


What is notable from our exploration of the use of virtual reality in sports training is that quite often, solutions quickly become multi-purpose. Pretty much all of those covered above can be used as rehab tools, while those designed to improve technique tend to have mental benefits and vice-versa. 

Olympic teams and World Champions are moving quickly to integrate immersive training into the routines of athletes. That is an encouraging sign, but we should not get ahead of ourselves just yet. While some solutions are already making a difference, XR still requires advances in areas such as data capturing to make immersive training more viable for sports organisations - and that is before we discuss variables such as the sport itself and cost.

However, it is clear that Vin's view that XR has a future in sports training is very much justified. It may well be left to the giants to get stuck in, and there will no doubt be some irony in that it'll be for them to make and learn from mistakes when adopting such solutions. Once integrative technologies catch up though, you can expect to see tech-inspired sports stars performing better than ever. 


Can virtual reality really make a difference to elite athletes? Tell us your thoughts in our comments section below or tweet us, @hedgehoglab.


Want to know how organisations in other sectors are embracing immersive training? Check out this list of the 5 most impressive uses crafted by our Chief XR Officer, Shaun Allan.


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