Cardinals' use of virtual reality technology yields record season

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Derek Belch sat in the office of Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney last June on the Saturday of the Belmont Stakes.

They had just finished watching the historic race on TV when Swinney texted Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians. He had an idea that Arians might like. Arians called Swinney almost immediately. In the way only Arians can, he asked what the hell Swinney wanted on a relaxing Saturday afternoon.

Swinney then explained why Belch, the founder and CEO of STRIVR Labs, based in Palo Alto, California, was sitting in his office.

Clemson’s football team was one of the first to use the virtual reality system Belch created which combines real film with wearable technology for football players to get 360-degree views of the field. It takes video filmed by six GoPro cameras attached together at the top of a tripod, which is usually stationed in the middle of the defense near where the inside linebackers would stand or behind and just to the side of the quarterback, giving players a 360-degree view inside the headset.

Arians was intrigued and invited Belch and his company to Arizona.

Belch fit in a trip to Tempe between a meeting with the Dallas Cowboys -- STRIVR’s first NFL team -- and a trip to the East Coast to meet with another team, two days after the Cardinals ended their minicamp. Even though he had let his players go for the summer a day early because practice had gone so well last offseason, Arians was interested enough to wait two days in Arizona to meet with Belch. When Belch finally made it to Arizona, he pitched his virtual reality system to Arians, assistant head coach Tom Moore and Cardinals video director Rob Brakel.

Arians was even more interested after the meeting. After getting approval from Cardinals president Michael Bidwill, Arians and Belch began talking a week before training began in August.

“He said, ‘Let’s roll and be here in one week,’” Belch said.

Carson Palmer never liked technology when it came to football.

He always has preferred hard copies of his playbook over the digital versions on tablets. When the Cardinals introduced STRIVR during training camp, Palmer, along with players from six other position groups, began using the headsets.

Now virtual reality has become a part of Palmer’s daily routine. He uses it in the morning and before afternoon meetings if he has time. He also became the first quarterback from one the seven NFL teams STRIVR works with to have a system installed at his home.

“I don’t use technology or try to stay away from technology, but the STRIVR system is not something I could stay away from,” Palmer said. “I use it. All of our quarterbacks use it.

“It’s another way of watching film. The same time I spend watching film, I spend on the STRIVR. I spend almost as much time on the STRIVR as I do just on the playbook, going through different reads and progression, so it’s a huge part of what I do.”

It might not be a coincidence that Palmer had the best season of his career, throwing 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns, and finished the season with a career high in quarterback rating (104.1) and QBR (82.1).

“I’ve looked at stats on where I’m using it the most and where I’m most successful statistically,” Palmer said. “I think it’s improved my stats. It’s improved my knowledge of our offense and I know it’s worked with Drew [Stanton] and with Matt [Barkley], because they use it all the time and that’s how they get their reps of practice.

“It’s blown me away. Literally six days a week I use it, so it’s been a big part of my prep every week.”

As the season progressed, STRIVR began tracking which players Palmer was using the headset for the most and how his usage correlated to certain situations in games. Belch said the company runs analytics for every team it works with, but the information is proprietary to each team. Once Palmer saw the numbers, he told STRIVR to keep running the analytics.

While Palmer might get the most use out of STRIVR, the Cardinals’ backup quarterbacks might benefit the most.

Backup Drew Stanton stands about 15 to 20 feet behind Palmer during practice, so his view has been singular for the past three years. And when he watches film of practice and games, the angle is typically the all-22, which is a bird’s-eye view of everyone on the field from the top of the stadium.

Yet when Stanton and third-string quarterback Matt Barkley put on the headset, they’re transported into the play. They’re getting reps without actually getting the physical reps.

“It’s easy to sit there and watch film like all of us have in the past and say, ‘OK, this is what I would’ve done,’” Stanton said. “When you have that kind of vantage point [with the headset on], it’s like, ‘OK, I would’ve done this. The safeties rotated here. I can see the displacement.’

“But when you’re actually at eye level and seeing everything else around you, it’s such an impressive tool from the point you can’t simulate it any other way.”

When Barkley, who was traded to the Cardinals on Sept. 4, began learning the offense he opted for traditional methods like the playbook and regular film study. Once he understood the scheme, the virtual reality helped Barkley get “virtual” reps so he could get a more in-depth understanding of specific plays.

“You can still get those reps that you need to feel prepared for the game,” he said. “I think it helps guys understanding where to go with the ball or checks that need to be made.”

While STRIVR gave Palmer a more intimate angle on plays, it helped the game slow down for inside linebacker Kevin Minter.

He uses it about every other day and most often after practice, but he has come in early some days to get more use out of the headset. It has helped him figure out split zones as well as gap assignments, Minter said.

“It changes the whole thing,” he said. “It helped me almost slow it down to an extent and learn how I fit in certain things. With the split zone it can be one back, it can be two backs and that changes the whole fit.”

Minter was given the starting job this season after Larry Foote retired and joined the Cardinals’ coaching staff. He finished with 94 tackles, half a sack and a forced fumble.

Belch had the idea to incorporate virtual reality with football as an undergrad at Stanford in 2005.

He was taking a class taught by professor Jeremy Bailenson, who was the founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Belch, who was a kicker for Stanford from 2003 to '07, pitched the invention to Bailenson in 2005, but Bailenson said the technology to develop the product had yet to be invented. After graduating from business school at the University of Southern California, Belch returned to Stanford to be a graduate assistant for special teams under Cardinal coach David Shaw.

During Belch's two years with the Cardinal, Shaw allowed him to introduce and use the virtual reality system with the players, including quarterback Kevin Hogan, with one caveat -- Belch couldn’t put a GoPro on any helmets. Belch started seeing instant results. After the 2014 season, Shaw encouraged Belch to start a virtual reality company. Shaw gave STRIVR seed money and Belch said he continues to be its only investor.

The company's client list has grown to include six NFL teams -- the Cardinals, Cowboys, Vikings, Jets, Saints and 49ers -- and it has also done fan interaction events with the Patriots. STRIVR also works with 14 college teams including Stanford, Clemson -- which lost in the national championship game Monday -- Auburn, Arkansas and four more Pac-12 teams whose names Belch will announce early this year.

One reason why Belch believes teams have been receptive to STRIVR is because the virtual reality is real footage, not digital renditions of the video.

“When you’re talking about high-speed athletic movements, decision-making, the goofy gait of an avatar or a video-game character doesn’t work from a cognitive standpoint,” Belch said. “That is the first reaction we get.”

Of STRIVR's clients across professional and college football, two were NFL playoff teams -- the 13-3 Cardinals and 11-5 Vikings -- one was a 10-win team in the Jets and another played for the College Football Playoff title.

“Those teams, ironically, and this may be total coincidence, they’re our heaviest users,” Belch said. “They listen to us with how they should use it. We feel they use it the right way. They’re doing a few things that is kind of their own secret sauce, which we don’t talk about.

“Maybe something’s going on.”