KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sheahon Zenger isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here. He just wants to make sure Kansas gets to ride shotgun when the revolution comes.
“You know, it really is two-fold,” the Jayhawks’ athletic director said of the school’s new virtual reality football simulator, a 3D environment that’s slated to debut on campus later this year.
“One, on a personal level: I spent the first decade of my career coaching college football and was fascinated by the concept … I always wondered, as a graduate assistant and coach, if you could transform game tape into (3D models). So that piqued my interest. And so I would always wonder when that day would come. And, lo and behold, it’s here.
“Second, Kansas has made a serious investment in its football program. We believe we’ve hired one of the best offensive minds in football, and want to give him the best (shot) at the latest technology, to work with those quarterbacks.”
Soon enough, thanks to that technology, Jayhawk signal callers will be able to feel what it’s like to play in Norman or Ames — without ever leaving Lawrence.
KU announced this week that it’s partnering with Irvine, Calif.-based tech firm EON Reality to build a virtual training environment for its football players. It’s the first university to adopt EON’s new football simulator program, a leap of technology and, to some degree, of faith as well.
“When I was coaching, they were practicing against the scout team,” explained Brendan Reilly, co-founder of EON Reality Sports and the point man for the virtual football project. “And they’re practicing against small little white guys like me. And I’m like, ‘Wow, there’s got to be another way.’”
In a sense, having the project at Kansas brings it full circle. Reilly worked as a student assistant for men’s basketball coach Bill Self up until his graduation from KU in 2009. The genesis of the ‘simulator’ brainstorm came a year after that, while Reilly was on the men’s basketball staff at Illinois State as an administrative assistant.
“I probably talked to every virtual-reality game company in the world and basically said, ‘I have this new idea. I have no idea how I’m going to make it work, but I’m going to make it work,’” said Reilly, who also worked with the Kansas City Royals for a short spell before moving to the west coast. “And a year-and-a-half later, we are where we are.”
The software for the virtual football project is expected to be complete by the end of April, Reilly said. The set-up, in simplest terms, should go something like this: Jayhawk players will strap on a set of special goggles and step into a 10-foot-by-10-foot room.
Once there, they’ll feel as though they’ve walked into the middle of a life-size, video-game style environment, not unlike the one featured in Electronic Arts’ popular “Madden” gaming series.
But the customization part of the process is what has both Reilly and Zenger excited about the project moving forward. KU coaches and staff members should be able to input a database of an opponent’s plays and players — the read-option utilized at Kansas State, for example, as run by quarterback Daniel Sams — and Jayhawk players will be able to work out against those plays, performed by virtual, 3D players, in real time conditions.
In fact, long-term, Reilly is shooting for a national database of plays and playbooks using the EON model. He’s envisioned a world in which other football programs can upload or download specific sets the way consumers buy digital music or games off of iTunes or Amazon.com.
“We want to revolutionize the game-film industry,” Reilly says. “At the end of the day, you learn faster, you train smarter. And if you do that, then you’re going to win more.”
The goal is for student-athletes to process more information, more quickly, at game-speed. It probably won’t hurt as a recruiting tool, either.
“For the student-athletes, it’s like playing a video game,” Reilly says. “They love it. I hosted 30 kids in high school (the other day); they get the idea. They understand it. But it’s something they’ve never seen before. It’s still fresh and new and exciting.”
Of course, Kansas coach Charlie Weis is more of your old-school type. Can a veteran, grounded football mind learn to co-exist with the bells and whistles of the virtual world?
“He’s been coaching quarterbacks a long time,” Zenger chuckles. “I’m not sure he needs any new help. I just want to make sure when the opportunity presented itself, that we jumped to the front of the line and moved forward.” You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com