College football programs turning to virtual reality for recruiting

PHOENIX (AP) — College football teams have been using virtual reality as a training tool, putting players in an interactive 360-degree environment without having to be on the field.

A handful of programs are using it for a new purpose: Recruiting.

By slipping on a headset, recruits can see what it’s like to be in the team huddle, listen to a coach’s speech, run down the tunnel before a game or tour the campus.

It’s like taking an official visit without ever leaving their homes.

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“Teams have all these hype videos that they push out. We are a hype video 2.0,” said Brendan Reilly, CEO of EON Sports VR, one of few virtual reality companies working with college football programs. “It’s the same exact content they’re capturing in those videos, but now it’s more compelling, more engaging and more interactive.”

The training aspect of virtual reality has become a big hit across college football, with teams using it to game plan against specific opponents, work on specific plays or defensive looks, give players mental reps even when they’re at home.

Now teams are working with software companies to design virtual reality environments that showcase the best elements of the school and the football program.

The main goal is to use the virtual campus to entice recruits to visit the actual campus.

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One of the biggest hurdles coaches face in recruiting is trying to convince targeted players to take official visits to their schools. Get them on campus coaches believe they can close the deal by showing off the campus and explaining their philosophies in depth. Fail to get them to visit and more than likely the recruit will play somewhere else.

“Kids are trying to get all over the world to go see universities, you’ve got to bring your university to them and give them a reason to come look closer,” Kansas coach David Beaty said. “I’ll be honest with you, before I came to KU, I didn’t know it was like that. I was like, ‘wow, this place is real.’ And you don’t know it until you come here. So that virtual reality piece I think is going to be helpful for us just to pique people’s interest to go, ‘I need to check that out, place is pretty nice.'”

Virtual reality as a recruiting tool is a relatively new tactic. UNLV, UCLA, Kansas, Syracuse and Ole Miss are among the schools entering the virtual reality recruiting world, though it figures to catch on fast.

First, it’s easy to use.

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All a recruit needs is a headset, a smartphone and to download an app. The environments can be viewed on their phones in two-dimension or in stereoscopic 3D with headset. With the headset, all it takes is a gaze at an icon at the bottom or in a certain direction and the viewer is off and touring.

And the views are incredible.

Using a specialized 360-degree camera, virtual reality companies like EON — check out their YouTube page here — can capture every aspect of the environment, from front and behind the viewer to above and below them.

It can take a recruit inside a team huddle, down the tunnel before a game, around campus or through the weight room.

“From a recruiting standpoint, you can show them everything you want to show them, basically have an unofficial recruiting visit from anywhere in the country as long as they have a smartphone and they can access us on the app,” said Drew Jennison, UNLV’s assistant recruiting coordinator.

And the recruit can do it his own pace.

Official visits can often be hectic, with coaches trying to jam as much in 48 hours as they possibly can. They create detailed itineraries for the recruits, which often don’t allow for many deviations if, say, the recruit wants to spend extra time in the business building or student center.

“When you’re on an on-campus visit, you’re all over the place,” Reilly said. “With virtual reality, kids can take it on their own pace, take in the scenery, have the experience what it will be like to be on that campus or what it’s like on game day. If a recruit that they’re truly trying get, he’s going to know what that’s like.”

Most schools like to show off the same things: tours of the campus, dorms, football facilities, weight room, game-day experience. All have unique aspects they like to showcase, too, whether it’s a pregame ritual or a game-day tradition.

And whatever the environment, the technology can make it seem even better than it actually is.

“What’s cool is that people can choose what they want to see,” Jennison said. “Some kids might not really care about the library, but in virtual reality, everything kind of becomes cool. It shows things that aren’t that cool in a really cool way. There’s kid that are going to be excited about the library: ‘Whoa, 360 library!'”