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Michigan testing virtual reality for recruits

As if having Jim Harbaugh sitting in your living room wasn't already surreal enough, Michigan is adding a dose of virtual reality to its recruiting trips this fall.

The school's website published a short video Tuesday that showed the new virtual reality headsets that the program plans to use to give prospects a realistic experience of being a Michigan football player without ever stepping foot in the Big House. The video shows current players and coaches, including Harbaugh, testing the technology and says it will be coming this fall.

Virtual reality and its potential applications have left football coaches in college and the NFL salivating this offseason. It's the hottest and newest innovation for forward-thinking teams looking for their next edge. Stanford and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are both documented early-adopters who invested in the headsets to provide a more customizable and realistic way to study film and the playbook. Michigan appears to be the first to announce plans to use the technology as a recruiting tool, although it would be surprising if prospects visiting the Cardinal facility in Palo Alto didn't get to give Stanford's sets a test drive.

"The fact that it was immersive, it really captured emotion," assistant coach Jay Harbaugh says in the video. "You didn't feel so much like a spectator. To be that program and university that's setting the bar high is something that's exciting for everybody."

The recent proliferation of virtual reality in football started in a garage in Southern California. In 2011, 18-year-old Palmer Luckey created his first prototype of the Oculus Rift, a new virtual reality headset that produced far more realistic results than its clunky ancestors. The new technology spurred creative ideas for how to use it, including one Stanford grad student named Derek Belch who thought it could be helpful for football teams.

Belch was a Pac-12 All-Academic kicker for Stanford in 2007. He hit the game-winning extra point to upset No. 1 USC. His head coach that year was Jim Harbaugh. As his master's thesis project, Belch developed a program that allowed Stanford quarterbacks to feel like they were going through reps on the practice field when they were wearing a headset. In an era when programs are ultra-sensitive to head injuries and the general wear and tear they are putting on their players, the implications of practicing without physically practicing were obvious.

Michigan's plan to use the headsets as recruiting tools could solve another major issue in college football. How can the top high school players without the means to travel to distant campuses take advantage of all the opportunities in front of them?

The NCAA allows for seniors in high school to take a limited number of official visits -- recruiting trips where the school is allowed to pick up the tab. Those trips aren't allowed to take place until the student starts his senior year of high school, which is often too late in today's sped-up recruiting cycle. Beyond that, students and their families have to pay for all expenses when they want to tour a school or meet a potential future coaching staff.

Harbaugh took a stab at connecting with prospects that can't make it to campus with his much-discussed satellite camp tour this June. While those trips proved fruitful, there was no way for Harbaugh and his staff to effectively illustrate what a home game at Michigan Stadium or a stroll through campus is actually like. Virtual reality could solve that problem. Assistant coaches can pack a headset (each is a few hundred dollars) when they ship out across the country to visit prospects in their homes throughout the year. It's not quite the same as actually visiting a school, but it would be a big step forward from pictures in a brochure or a promotional video.

If recruits like using the virtual reality as much as the Michigan players interviewed in the school's promotional video did, it won't be long before every coach at a major college is packing a headset with him when he hits the recruiting trail.