During NFL Combine week, downtown Indianapolis swells with little clandestine meetings, where seemingly innocuous details are discussed like matters of national security. There’s back-of-the-restaurant gatherings, coffee-shop meet-ups, sit-downs in obscure bars. And, for three consecutive days in late February, there was room 1040 of the Westin hotel.
Coaches from 10 NFL teams — and the GM from an 11th in Denver Broncos legend John Elway — visited room 1040. What they experienced inside the suite, they would later say, was unlike anything they’d ever seen. Their hosts were three men, each around 30 years old: an ex-NFL quarterback; a kicker-turned-MBA/college coach; and a former FBI agent who specialized in counter-terrorism. In the middle of the room were two laptops set together so their screens operated as one. On it was, perhaps, the future of football coaching.
Specifically, the future of football coaching was being projected through a $350 headset connected to the laptops. The NFL coaches were watching Stanford’s practice film from 2014. There were no exotic plays. No unusual formations — just a handful of scout team reps run at three-quarters speed. The "wow" factor came from the perspective of it all. Whoever put on that headset with its earphones and goggles became the QB on that field in Palo Alto.
Look left and you can see your tight end settling into position next to the left tackle. In front of you, the safeties and MIKE linebacker are trying to get lined up. Turn your head to the right and you look over the right tackle and all the way out to the wide receiver on the right side of the formation with a cornerback facing him, peeking in at you. Keeping turning to the right — it’s OK to twist around. Now 180 degrees and — whoa! — there’s your running back staring right at you.
"I was expecting something kinda cheesy, like video-game quality, and right when I was about to write them off, they put the headset on you and shoot, it’s real," one NFL QB coach said after returning from Indy.
Twenty-nine-year-old Derek Belch, a former kicker and now quality control assistant for the Cardinal, led all the meetings. Belch could’ve told his audience some stats like how Kevin Hogan went from completing 64 percent of his passes up to 76 percent after the Stanford quarterback started using this headset regularly for about 20 minutes before games. Or that the Cardinal went from averaging 24 points a game to 38 in those final three games. Or that the team finished the year scoring on every one of its last 27 trips to the Red Zone when their first two units were on the field, which would seem even more jaw-dropping when you consider the team was scoring just around 50 percent inside the 20-yard-line before that.
Instead, Belch used subtlety to drive home just what their technological breakthrough has done for Stanford football. He revealed a detail that never shows up on a quarterback’s stat line and is lost on most in the stadium but is exactly the type of thing coaches love from their QBs. Belch knew one play — a 35-yard handoff to Remound Wright in the Foster Farms Bowl against Maryland with the Cardinal up 28-7 on their first drive of the third quarter — that would resonate inside the NFL world.
The initial play call, "95 Bama," was designed as a strong-side run with one of the key blocks being the wide receiver picking up the strong safety. Problem was, Maryland’s SAM linebacker was on the line and the Terps’ safety was creeping up as their free safety shifted over. Hogan knew if the Cardinal ran the play as called, the receiver would have no shot to make the block, and Maryland’s safety would snuff it out for a 4-yard loss. So Hogan "killed" the call and audibled to another run play where Stanford’s guard was designated to kick out that safety and Wright dashed through a clear path of turf. Moments like this get to the essence of elite quarterback play every bit as much as fitting a pass between two defenders or extending a play by dodging a free blitzer. The decision had become second nature for Hogan because he’d seen it, done it, so many times in just that 20-minute session with the headset before the game.
"It was easy," Hogan said a few weeks after the NFL Combine.
Hogan was well-versed in the Terps’ blitz. That headset and Belch’s Master’s thesis in Stanford’s virtual reality program are a big reason why — and why a lot of NFL and college teams are going to have a fascinating decision this offseason.
Stanford QB Kevin Hogan saw first-hand how virtual reality can improve on-field performance.
In the fall of 2012, Belch, then in business school at USC, received a phone call from one of his mentors, Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson, telling him he’d been accepted into his Master’s program. Belch had first started working with Bailenson in 2006 when he took one of his classes as an undergrad.
The world’s leading authority on virtual reality and how the brain functions in a virtual environment, Bailenson has been visited by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Google founder Larry Page, is on Samsung’s advisory board and works with Navy SEALS to help figure out how Frogmen can make better decisions underwater. Bailenson and Belch, who once booted the game-winning PAT to cap Stanford’s monumental upset of USC as a 42-point underdog, had spent years kicking around the idea of how virtual reality might benefit the football world. They agreed that should be Belch’s thesis.
Some 20 years ago, virtual reality was hyped by many as the next big thing. It coincided with the boom in personal computers. But VR never broke into the mainstream. Clunky headsets and the fact no one could figure out how to keep folks from getting nauseous from the experience proved to be big roadblocks. Bailenson’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab with its $50,000 helmet tethered to the ceiling was one of the few ways to enter that world without getting seasick. However, Bailenson knew VR was primed to make a resurgence. Last year, Zuckerberg and Facebook spent $2.3 billion on a company called Oculus that had created Rift, a set of virtual reality headsets that cost less than most flat-screen TVs.
Bailenson has never played a down of football in his life. He jokes that he is the typical professor. "I played ultimate frisbee," he says. He became a pioneer in his field because he’d found ways to adapt VR hardware that had been designed to give the user these brilliant visual experiences but was limited in its application. Bailenson devised methods that provided content that was appealing and could match it with the hardware so it fostered a particular learning context. He noted that even though there have been only a few commercial successes in VR, it’s proven to be a powerful teaching method on many fronts, including phobia desensitization, where it’s cured people of the fear of flying and fear of public speaking, among other things. It’s also proven to be a vital aspect in training the military. In his research, Bailenson had learned the brain absorbed 33 percent more effectively in immersive VR than from video.
Belch and Bailenson, who met twice a week to discuss how their pilot program could be an asset to Stanford football, realized VR could be an ideal dynamic for quarterbacks. While there were so many moving parts all around them, QBs are tasked to do the bulk of their work from essentially one confined space. "It’s like the flight simulator idea, he is in one spot: in the cockpit," Belch said. "So we have the QB pretty much in one spot and he lives in this three-yard halo." So they set out to simulate that three-yard halo.
In late February 2014, Belch and Bailenson had a meeting with David Shaw. The Stanford head coach had mixed results with recent tech advances. His program had been at the forefront of concussion research, but he’d also seen some "pie-in-the-sky" ideas that turned out to be just silly, like a short-lived stint trying to use a GoPro camera on top of Andrew Luck’s helmet. "I made it about two plays before I felt seasick," he said.
"We’d love to be able to come out to practice and shoot something," Belch asked Shaw.
Three months later, Belch and Bailenson showed Shaw some test plays they had filmed on the last day of spring football. It took them over a month to get the film post-processed and rendered into a worthwhile VR experience.
Shaw was intrigued.
"It was the first time I could actually visualize something like that," Shaw says. "’I was like, ‘Wow, if we could actually put quarterbacks in a virtual world so we’re not using extra practice reps, we’re not extending practice at all — we’re not messing with the 20-hour work week, we’re just creating a library of things for a QB to learn something, that’d help your backup QB who’s never gonna get as many reps as a starter and helps your starter get three reps on a play that he screwed up on and he can just watch the same thing over and over again and see everybody and feel like he’s there.’ When Derek started explaining it to me, I got really excited."
Shaw, who knew Bailenson because the professor’s virtual reality lab was a stop on the tour his staff would show Stanford football recruits, agreed to set aside five minutes of practice each week on Monday nights. Offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren would scout out eight to 10 blitzes the upcoming opponent favored and scheme up some answers that the Cardinal scout team players would carry out as Belch and his video crew filmed. By Wednesdays, when the quarterbacks came into the football office, the Cardinal’s plan of attack was already loaded into VR and there for them once they strapped on the headsets. But the transition was hardly seamless.
"The first day they filmed, it looked pretty funky," Bloomgren said. "It was like eight GoPros rubber-banded together and I’m thinking, ‘What in the heck are we doing?’"
The first two months of the season, Belch and his crew did a lot of experimenting. They had to gauge exactly where to put the tripod. What depth worked best? Snapping the football proved to be problematic. Where should the actual QB stand? They tried him kneeling down in front of tripod, but that didn’t look right. Worse still, Belch says the stitching of the video wasn’t clear, so it was blurry and it might look like Stanford had two right tackles.
"It was us figuring out the software, the lighting — a lot of stuff matters," Belch said. "The best time to film was at night. Or have the sun behind you."
Despite the shaky trial-and-error phase that lasted into November, Shaw remained patient. "The big thing for me is having the long vision," he said. "I’ll sacrifice some time here and there, because in the long run, this could be phenomenal. In the long run, this could be a game-changer."
Hogan, in his third season as Stanford’s starting QB, struggled with consistency for much of the season as the Cardinal offense sputtered. The team was 5-5 in mid-November, but perhaps not so coincidentally, once the VR football trainer improved, so did the Cardinal. "At first I thought it was very cool, but I didn’t think it was that realistic but they improved it a lot," said Hogan, a Science Technology and Society major who actually took two of Bailenson’s classes in his sophomore year. Hogan also offered up a lot of feedback during the season to try to make it even more authentic. "They made it so it aligns with our cadence. We said, ‘Let’s call the play and get out of our huddle. We only have 25 seconds to run the play. Go through dummy cadences. Let’s make it as realistic as possible.’
"When you’re watching on film you have a birds-eye view from the sky. It’s hard to see if they’re leaning one way or the other. But with this, when you’re going through your cadence and start to go through your dummy count, you can see the safety start to creep up a little bit. That’s an indicator. When you’re just watching film, you don’t get the sound, you don’t get that real-life feel of the game. With this, I can see what the structure is."
Hogan played well in late November against Cal before playing his best game of the season at No. 8 UCLA in a 31-10 romp, where he connected on 16-of-19 passes, with two of his three incompletions coming on drops. Bloomgren raved about how comfortable Hogan looked that day and how in control of the offense he was. Shaw was so impressed by the results that he made his QBs’ work with the VR football trainer mandatory each week, which started with last year’s bowl game against Maryland, which Stanford won, 45-21.
"Five minutes (a week) of practice is so worth it," Shaw said. "Our back-up quarterback didn’t get a lot of plays over the course of the year and we were in a lot of tight games. At any point in a game if your starter breaks a shoelace and he has to come out for a play and it might be a third-and-seven with that game on the line, that back-up QB might not have gotten a single rep on this specific call versus this specific defense on the field. But if he’s gotten it in virtual reality and his mind has seen it and he’s emotionally felt it and he can anticipate where to go with the ball, we’re increasing our chances for success."
By the time Hogan and the Cardinal blew out Maryland, Belch realized he had a big decision to make: keep pursuing coaching or turn his VR football trainer into a full-fledged business. A week earlier, Belch’s former Stanford teammate, Trent Edwards, an ex-NFL quarterback, had come to the Bay Area to visit family. Belch asked him for feedback. Edwards had the headset on for two minutes and said, "I think this is awesome. I wanna work for you."
Former Stanford tight end Zach Ertz tests out the virtual reality headset.
Belch’s best friend from childhood, Michael Manuccia, a former FBI agent specializing in counter-terrorism before enrolling at Wharton for his MBA, also wanted in. He would become Belch’s COO. Another vital piece was keeping Bailenson on board even though this would actually be the first time he’d ever agree to join one of his former student’s start-ups. His title: Chief Visionary.
Shaw, Belch’s boss, called him for a meeting before Stanford’s bowl game. Shaw’s advice: Belch, who was making about $1,000 a month at Stanford and had a pregnant wife expecting their first child, needed to take his VR project and turn it into a company right now, and that he’d be "stupid" not to.
Even before Belch had worked out a lot of the kinks, Shaw knew his assistant was on to something big. At midseason, Trent Dilfer, the ESPN NFL analyst who heads Elite 11 and has been privy to more cutting-edge technology than probably anyone in the sport, was coming to Stanford to visit. Shaw asked Belch if he minded showing Dilfer what they were doing because he felt the former pro QB always said what he thinks.
"I was blown away," Dilfer says. "I thought, ‘This is gonna change how QBs prepare.’ I’ve seen just about everything that’s out there and there’s nothing like this. I think if Drew Brees or Tom Brady sees this, they’re gonna demand it.
"To me, it’s an absolute walk-off grand slam, but at the end of the day, the coach has to understand it, and it’s going to depend on the coaching staff and how much they’re willing to prepare those repetitions, because there’s gonna be a ton of legwork that goes into it. I guarantee this: A lot of teams (that saw it at the Combine) are back in their homes thinking, ‘How are we gonna implement that?’"
Belch, Bailenson and company opted to name the company STRIVR Labs. The ST an homage to their Stanford roots, the VR for "Virtual Reality." They pooled together around $50,000 amongst themselves for start-up costs. A big chunk of that was from Shaw, Belch says. The 42-year old coach asked Belch if they needed any money. Belch initially declined the offer. "I was like, ‘I don’t wanna take Coach Shaw’s money,’ but then I thought about it for a minute. ‘If David Shaw is willing to put up some of his own money on this, that’s gonna speak volumes to potential suitors.’"
Shaw believes there will be an infinite number of ways people will be able to work off Stanford’s VR innovation that Belch and Bailenson have developed. One idea is to incorporate a voice-over to add direction. "In an offseason teaching world, we can do an installation that way," Shaw says. "It’s Play 1. Push pause. I can talk to him: ‘You see the formation that we’re in now? We’re gonna send this motion. You see No. 42? He’s gonna help us make our decision. Now push Play.’ You can talk ’em through."
Shaw spent almost a decade coaching in the NFL and can recall at least four instances where his team’s third-string QB was forced into action, and this technology would’ve been a huge asset. "That (third-stringer) is not getting any reps. Not any practice time. If that third QB can spend 10 to 15 (minutes) a week on this, and then he’s thrown into active duty in the middle of the fourth quarter because he’s felt those blitzes come at him and he’s seen how we’re gonna pick this blitz up and this is where the route is going to come open, he’s mentally and emotionally and visually been there. As we’ve learned from virtual reality, your body doesn’t know the difference.
"When it looks like you’re falling, you brace yourself even though you know you’re standing on the ground. So now if I can get the quarterback’s mind to feel like, ‘Hey, I’ve been here before,’ he can make quicker decisions. He can anticipate what’s gonna happen, which heightens our chance for success."
Asked how he reconciles the nature of coaches being competitive and battling the temptation of keeping an edge from his opponents with the business side of making the VR trainer available to other FBS programs, Shaw smiled.
"Initially, we’re pushing to sell to NFL franchises," he said. "I’m not selling the company. I’m not running the company. I’m not a decision-maker. I’m an advisor, but at some point, it’s gonna proliferate. This is too good. This is too good for football. This can help advance the sport. You’re looking at cutting down practice times. You’re looking at having guys hit less and do less. This is one of those things that everyone gets what we want to some degree. We as coaches want them fully prepared, but now we’re not keeping them on the practice field any longer. You’re getting more work with less practice time."
Shaw predicts it’ll be "everywhere" in football in three years, max. "I’m thinking in two years this is gonna be in a lot of places and three years from now, you’ll feel like you’re left out if you don’t have something like this.
"It’s always interesting about who wants to be the first to jump in the pool. The loudest voices I’ve heard are the ones taking the snaps on NFL Sundays. Every NFL QB that’s seen it has been blown away and said, ‘I want this. It’s better than watching film. It’s better than sitting on my iPad where I can kinda see but I really can’t see it. With this I feel like I’m getting better.’ That’s the one demographic where it’s been 100 percent, and if you follow anything in the NFL, you’re gonna follow the money. If you’re going to pay a guy $100 million and you have to spend another couple hundred thousand to help him do his job better, you’re going to do it to make that first investment pay off."
Two weeks have passed since the Combine and the Stanford football office is buzzing. A bunch of old Cardinal players are visiting. Zach Ertz, the former standout tight end who now plays for the Philadelphia Eagles, packs his 6-foot-6, 250-pound frame into the Stanford QB room to get a demo on the VR trainer he’s been hearing about. Ertz goes through a half-dozen plays before peeling off the headset. "That’s sweet," he says. "I’m a fan."
About an hour earlier, Belch, Bailenson and Shaw gave a much more involved showing to an NFL team president, who was so fascinated by the technology he was thinking of other ways his organization could use it, such as putting heart-rate monitors on players and collecting data while they’re in the VR environment as compared to on the field to add an analytics component to it.
David Shaw sees the massive potential of virtual reality training for QBs and predicts it will soon be widespread.
Bailenson thinks the analytics part of this has potentially big predictive potential since they will be capturing a lot of data especially in regards to the small movements of the head or body. If a guy doesn’t do well on a certain kind of play because his head or shoulder moved a certain way, his coaches might be able to tweak that depending on the micro data that comes back.
The product has been streamlined since Indy, Belch says. The dual monitors have been replaced by one laptop (it can run on a gamer laptop or anything as long as it has a good video card). Figuring out pricing has been a challenge. One NFL personnel person told Belch they should start their fee at about half a QB coach’s salary: around $250,000 for the season. Others have told them they should try to land one NFL team and offer one-year exclusivity for seven figures. Belch is willing to listen to anything.
He also thinks he’s taken a big step towards remedying another issue the NFL folks brought up: having to give up too much practice time to create their plays using real cameras. (One team’s potential workaround for that was to use actors to carry out the plays.)
"What we did on Monday was a game-changer for us as a business," Belch says. "Now we can go back to the teams and say here’s a way to capture the content without disrupting your flow of practice. At Stanford we’re gonna film every 7-on-7 period for the rest of spring ball and we’re gonna have 200 plays so I can go to Chip Kelly and say, ‘Here’s a way to integrate right into what you’re doing without changing a damn thing.’"
Another concern an NFL team had is bringing in STRIVR, an outside group, behind closed doors in game weeks. "You got to have a lot of faith in them," one NFL QB coach said. "They’re the ones filming. They’re gonna be privy to the gameplan, your plays and what you’re doing during the week. You’re also gonna need complete buy-in from your staff on a week-to-week basis."
Belch, though, is optimistic STRIVR is close to landing its first client beyond Stanford in FBS football and in the NFL. There are some other tech companies already in football’s cognitive training space. However, Belch was relieved when he saw how different their visuals were compared to his VR product. At best, those others ones resemble video games. "Even the best Madden characters just kinda hover across the screen," Belch says. "They don’t bump into each other and that is not telling your brain, ‘This is real.’"
The trip to the NFL Combine was reassuring, Belch says, adding that his level of paranoia over someone trying to knock off their product has been dropping since Indy. "Our team that is in place is positioned to do it better than anybody.
"Everyone on the team and in the (Stanford football) office thinks I’m gonna be a billionaire from this, and I disagree. I’d be shocked if I was because my MBA brain starts to kick in and says, ‘There’s only 32 NFL teams. There’s only 25 to 30 college teams that can really afford this.’ Now, there’s a billion high school kids so that’s where we can really grow it, but that relies on how many kids have headsets and what are the computing requirements. We may be two years away from widespread use, but I do think we’re poised to do something very, very cool."