Editors’s Note: THE NEW LIST is a new original SSO series featuring visionaries and game-changers in the world of technology. They’re augmenting culture and creating breakthroughs in sports, fitness, fashion, and more.
We recently caught up with Derek Belch, co-founder and CEO of STRIVR Labs, a virtual reality (VR) company based in the heart of Silicon Valley. Derek and his team are creating training technology for athletes that is changing the way we think about performance. Read more below to hear how STRIVR was launched, Derek’s insights on VR in the NFL, and what’s next for the way we consume video.
Derek Belch: I played football at Stamford from 03-07, I went to work in consulting for a few years, and then I went to business school at USC. While at USC I decided if I didn’t try coaching before I was 30 I’d regret it forever, so I went back to Stanford to coach and be in another grad program. My master’s thesis was to come up with a way to train football players using VR. We went through a pilot process during the 2014 season; everything worked and had a lot of potential. And the head coach at Stanford, David Shaw, sat me down at the end of the year and basically highly suggested that I go start a company, especially since I have a business background, so I did. [Laughs] I decided two weeks later that I was gonna do it. That’s kind of how we got going.
Last year we hit the road in March. Five of the first six college teams we met with signed up on the spot. We got the Cowboys a couple weeks later. And then by the beginning of the football season we had six NFL teams and ten colleges. We went from a two person company to a 20 person company overnight.
MS: Sounds like given your background, it’s the perfect storm. Everyone’s dream is to build a company that combines their interests and passions.
DB: Yea, as far as my decision making process, talking with my wife, parents, and friends, it was actually like, “This really is the perfect combination of everything.” And when I was in business school, (and even before that), I was very keen on starting a company. The coaching was quite a different shift from that, but it really made a ton of sense for me personally.
MS: Why hasn’t VR taken off before this, and what do you think is propelling VR in the mainstream now?
DB: I think VR has kind of had its moments over the last three decades of being ready to go mainstream. [Laughs] And it always hasn’t, until today. I think historically it really came down to cost. Despite the fact that VR has been around for a while, it’s historically been very expensive. It’s also been really big, bulky headsets, and today we have lighter, cheaper, more comfortable, more ergonomic, etc.
I also think historically VR has been used by professors at universities, really crazy gaming experiences, or intense military simulations – that kind of stuff. I don’t think the computing power and graphics processing was where it is today. Now with the combination of better hardware and graphics capabilities that currently do and can only continue to rival the best video games and movies out there, at this point it’s poised to take off.
MS: Speaking of professors, I know you’re working with Jeremy Bailenson. How did you guys fall into working with each other? Jeremy has a pretty incredible rep in this space.
DB: Yeah, I took a couple of Jeremy’s classes as an undergrad and we had a good relationship. Then he was my advisor in the master’s program when I came back. He’s part of our company; he’s our Chief Visionary and co-founded it with me. He’s a tenured professor, so we don’t get to have him for 100 hours a week like everyone else but we do use his [expertise] to help us whenever we need it.
MS: Looking at the numbers, there’s a lot of money in the league, and we all know football is an extremely data-driven sport. Why do you think the NFL hasn’t created something like this yet for itself?
DB: It’s not that easy; it’s as simple as that. [Laughs.] You’re talking about hiring a ton of engineers, about building something over several years that may or may not be good enough for what the players want. Then also, something like this is really viewed by the league as a competitive advantage offering. It’s not for everybody. Not every coach or player gravitates towards VR. (Most of them actually are very old-school.)
Now, you will see stuff popping up on the fan experience side and some of the leagues are already doing some internal testing, but also they’re not tech companies. They’re realistic. They’re thinking, “Why don’t we let other companies that are focused solely on this type of stuff handle it? If a partnership makes sense, we’ll do that. Otherwise, we’ll use what’s out there.”
MS: Something pervasive in professional sports is the fact that athletes never get enough practice time. Can you talk about that?
DB: In football especially, there are rules around how much you’re allowed to practice. So, the collective bargaining agreement in the NFL has limited practice based on the fact that football is a very physical game, (and if coaches had it their way they’d be with players 24/7), but it limits the amount of time players and coaches are allowed to be together in the off-season. It limits the amount of on-field time during the season. They’re literally on a stopwatch. If they go one minute over, they get fined. So the league takes that very seriously with the Players Association.
Then in other sports there are similar protocols in place, albeit not that extreme. In baseball it doesn’t matter if you’re not pounding into someone everyday, it’s a long season to do that for 162 games for months on end. So in all these sports, there are only so many physical reps you can take. I think at the highest levels of any sport, for the most part everybody can play, otherwise you don’t get there. What separates the athletes is their execution, performance on game day, and really, it’s mental – how they execute from a mental standpoint. So those are some of the reasons why there’s never enough time and why VR makes sense.
MS: Can the whole team practice with VR or is it limited to only certain positions?
DB: No. We can create simulations for every position but it’s not a day in and day out tool for every position on the field. Quarterbacks, safeties, linebackers, a few things here and there for special teams, running backs; but you know, it’s not something that the whole team does at the same time. It’s not something that necessarily needs to be done for every position. One day we might get there based on where technology goes, but for now, there are specific use cases.
MS: What are those limitations actually based on?
DB: Well, you’re not going to strap 360° cameras to people’s bodies and have them run around or else when you look at it with a headset you’re going to get nauseous and sick pretty quickly. So a lot of the limitations are on the content capture side, and the fact that we don’t use video game graphics, we actually use real film of what’s happening on the field. So in practice, we can manipulate and put cameras in certain places where we know they won’t be obtrusive, but we can’t put 360 cameras on the field during a game.
Video game graphics just don’t look very good in a headset. The human gait is not good enough to truly mimic movement to engage the brain. That’s why we didn’t go that route. So, those are just some of the limitations. So, light field capture and volumetrics rendering and all this stuff; technology is only going to get better and we’ll see how it applies.
MS: Can you talk a bit more about why you chose to go the real-life video route instead of using simulations?
DB: Right, so we did that just based on the science of VR and what Jeremy has studied for years in his lab at Stanford, and us just knowing the effect of VR works on the brain. That’s the main reason. We want them engaged. We don’t want them tuning out; we want it to work from a cognitive standpoint.
MS: You mention nausea, and there are of course other issues like headaches, eye strain, or people generally being uncomfortable wearing these types of devices for long periods of time. How do you combat those usage issues with athletes so they can get the most out of the technology in the shortest period of time?
DB: I think just creating quality content is where you start. We are very, very, very obsessive over what we will and won’t film and how we do what we do. We’re pretty obsessed about creating quality experiences and that helps the players get the most out of it.
MS: Let’s take a step back for a moment and talk about the business. What have some of your biggest challenges been since you started the company?
DB: Oh. [Laughs] Well, this is a startup, so where do I begin? So, sports is very challenging. Despite the fact that there is a lot of money in sports, a lot of the money goes towards player contracts. There aren’t millions of dollars sitting around for new exploratory technologies necessarily. Sports is very routine oriented, it’s very old-school with a lot of the coaching. Those are major routine barriers to break through.
Even last year when we started working with teams, nobody said, “That’s just okay.” [Coaches] were all blown away. But here we are working with 10-year NFL veterans who are used to doing things a certain way – that just hasn’t changed – so to introduce something new and expect them to grab onto it immediately is just not easy. So we’re very much in the early adopter mode. But we’re getting there. We’ve made a lot of inroads and last year we had 50,000 plays watched in VR. That’s a really big deal. So that would be challenge number one.
And the second thing would be – we’ve just grown really fast as a company. The challenges of managing people, (and we have a lot of people in different states because of all the teams we work with), so just making sure everybody’s on the same page and making sure the product we’re offering and the service is top notch.
MS: We know the technology is still pretty new, but what kind of results have you seen with teams using STRIVR?
DB: Really good ones. [Laughs] One of the things that we don’t do is we don’t walk into a room and tell coaches and players, “You’re going to win the Super Bowl because of VR,” or, “You’re going to the Pro Bowl because of VR.” Anybody that knows sports knows that this is just one piece of the puzzle. However, we have lots of players last year who really embraced what we were doing. One quarterback in the NFL who is a long-time vet watched 2500 plays last year in VR. And if you view what we’re doing as anything close to a mental rep, that means he got 2500 mental reps in addition to physical and other mental work he was doing. He had one of the best seasons in his career, statistically.
A couple of our college guys told us, “When I was on the field, the game was literally moving slower. It was a joke how easy it was to see a particular blitz coming before it even happened as a result of experiencing it over and over again in VR.” So, a lot of really good subjective feedback, but we’re really starting to look at data. Last year we saw a lot of correlations where someone would watch a particular blitz seven times four hours before the game, and sure as hell, that thing showed up in the game. That exact blitz is the exact play called, and BOOM. It was a gain of 18 for a first down. Again, is VR the reason for that? It’s probably one of many factors. But when you have players telling you subjectively that this really does work, that feels good. So we’re going to continue to push forward.
MS: You were able to have traction with elite football teams very quickly and you surpassed your new customer signup goals last year. Then you had the Cowboys and the 49ers on your roster earlier this year. Who else is using STRIVR as we head into this season?
DB: We work with six teams in the NFL: The 49ers, the Vikings, the Cowboys, the Jets, the Cardinals and the Buffalo Bills. Then we work with 13 teams in college. There are a few more college teams that have signed up that we’re going to start mid-season. We worked with the Washington Wizards last year in basketball; we actually have 2 more NBA teams on board that I’m not allowed to talk about yet, and we’re working with a couple individual NBA players doing some interesting work. We do have a baseball team that’s a development partner who is helping us work through some of the early challenges into baseball. We’re really running the gamut in sports.
Also, we’re doing a ton on the fan experience side and production for leagues, brands, and teams. We did a virtual hockey goalie simulator for the NY Rangers last year at Madison Square Garden. We did a cool VR experience for the Boston Red Sox that they’ve been using every home game all year. On the non-sports side for human performance we are working anonymously (for now) with a big-box retailer in training their employee base in VR.
MS: What’s the next frontier for STRIVR? Will we see microburst experiences for live sporting events? Will I finally get to sit courtside at a Warriors game? [Laughs] What’s on the horizon?
DB: We’re not going to go into live streaming/gaming today. There are a few other companies out there doing it pretty well. We’re still a ways away in terms of seeing how that shakes out with regards to headset distribution. We’re really going to focus more on the human performance side of things. Some of the examples I already mentioned. You will see from us some cool micro-sports-gaming experiences over the next year on platform.
MS: Last but not least — a classic. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
DB: The best advice I’ve ever received was from a college professor at lunch a few years ago when I was debating when I wanted to propose to my now-wife and the timeline of all that. He said, “Get your personal life figured out before you go take on the world with business and all the things you want to accomplish. It’s better when you have that nailed down, and you can celebrate those things together.” I proposed a few months later, and the support of my wife and family with what we’re doing has been unbelievable. I travel a lot, we have a one year old at home, and it’s a startup — so, it’s a lot. That’s the best advice I’ve ever received.