Reality check: Fans get closer than ever to athletes with virtual technology

By Erin Barney

Sean Smith watched Paxton Lynch’s perfect spiral fly over his head and hit a receiver in stride. There was grass under his feet and Lynch’s trainers to his left and right. When he looked up, he swore he could feel the Memphis sun.

But then the STRIVR goggles came off, and it was back to reality. A much colder, rainier Chicago reality.

Smith, 44, was one of thousands of fans in the NFL’s Draft Town Saturday to enter a virtual world. A Palo Alto, California-based virtual reality company, STRIVR, lets fans get an up-close and personal encounter with the players. The goggles offered a 360-degree view of Jaylon Smith’s workout or a look at the defensive line from Shaq Lawson’s vantage point.

“It’s unreal, just completely unreal,” Smith said. “You’re in the space, right there where they are, and you’re able to look around. Not something most of us will ever see.”

Logan Mulvey, STRIVR’s managing partner, said that’s the goal. The company creates highlight reels from inside the New England Patriots’ locker room and on the sidelines of Team USA’s soccer vs. Guatemala — places fans can’t normally go.

STRIVR’s videographers are former athletes, so they know what to look for when filming. Kevin Beecroft, 31, the company’s director of operations, said playing lacrosse his whole life has given him a major advantage in terms of perspective.

“We understand how to make our footprint as small as possible yet get the footage necessary for [fans] to get use out of what we are doing,” Beecroft said. “That’s something that’s really unique to us.”

The athletes don’t mind the close-up shots since the footage benefits them, too. STRIVR is also in the training business —giving players a platform for mental repetition in their sport while protecting them physically.

“We’re always trying to think down the road,” Beecroft said. “How can we minimize the risk of athletes getting injured on the field and still give them the experience as if they were?”

Football teams (six NFL and 13 Division I colleges) are STRIVR’s biggest clients, but hockey and baseball teams are starting to see the advantages too. The New York Rangers recently added a goalie simulation to the main concourse at Madison Square Garden. Fans get to stand in the net and watch slap shots fly by.

Active participation in the virtual world is the next big step for STRIVR.

Mulvey said as soon as eight months from now, consumers will be able to purchase goggles and other necessary sensors to catch the pass from Lynch rather than just watch him throw it.

When that day comes, Smith wants a shot at one-on-one with Chicago Bulls legend, Michael Jordan. But would the virtual platform give him an advantage or maybe even a chance at winning?

“Nope, absolutely not. All I’d hear would be him trash talking,” he said. ​

PHOTO AT TOP: Sean Smith of Chicago had an up close and personal experience with future NFL stars via STRIVR’s virtual reality tent at NFL Draft Town. (Erin Barney/MEDILL)