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Virtual soccer try-outs could become reality at one Calgary university

Earning a spot on the Mount Royal University Cougars women’s soccer team may soon go beyond the pitch.

The university is exploring how virtual reality might help it recruit players and train athletes already on the team.

“It’s the closest thing we can get to them being in our group without actually being in our group,” said Cougars head coach Tino Fusco.

Recognizing the importance of reviewing game video, Fusco reached out to MRU associate professor Anthony Chaston to develop a way to incorporate virtual reality into his coaching.

Chaston and honours student Daniel Millar collected 360-degree video of Cougars players during practice and plan on using that footage to immerse players and recruits into real soccer scenarios.

Coaches and players could then use the unique perspective to review plays and improve their soccer intelligence.

“If I can get a recruit in my office and sit her down and put the headset on her and actually be on the field and be able to see 360 degrees, now I’m able to challenge the athlete and say, ‘Do you understand the game?’” Fusco said.

Chaston has been working to gather the right equipment, planning the shots they’d need for analysis and then setting the plan in motion on the field.

“It took a long time to perfect it and figure out what types of motions you can have in the VR video that people are very comfortable with, and the other types of motions that make people nauseous,” Chaston said.

“As the season progresses we’ll bring players from the team in and we’ll have them watch that video back in virtual reality and fill out questionnaires for us about how effective that might be.”

Chaston said VR can sometimes make people sick because of some of the unnatural movements and motion, and the fast pace of a soccer game could make those issues even worse.

He spent about a year developing techniques for shooting VR video that’s fast-paced, using digital stabilization and gimble devices to cut down on the shakiness and make sure the video was useable.

All that video, along with the questionnaires, will eventually be analyzed by fourth-year honours student Daniel Millar, who’s using this project as his thesis.

While his field of study is sport psychology, not virtual reality, he’s a sports fan and is excited to explore how something like VR could impact how athletes play their game.

“I’d love to work with athletes who get injured then getting them back to match fitness,” Millar said. “If I have an injured player and they want to feel what it’s like to be in the game and still be part of the team, not just sitting on the bench, then it would be huge for that.”

He added that determining whether VR and sport is a good mix will come down more to how players feel, rather than data or hard numbers.

“There’s not much we can get empirical data for, so not like numbers or calculating whether it’s going to make them a better player or anything like that,” he said. “We’re sort of seeing if they’re comfortable in the situation and where we can take it from there.”

According to Fusco and Chaston, European soccer clubs are already using the relatively new technology.

“Having the resources here at the university, I’m all about technology so let’s see what we can do with it,” Fusco said.

Chaston agreed, saying he’s excited about the marrying of the athletic and scientific departments to carry out the experiment, which he said is mostly exploratory at this stage.

Millar’s honours thesis on the experiment is due at the end of the academic year. That likely won’t be the end of the project though, as both Fusco and Chaston plan to continue the research past the year’s end.

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