Members of the US Ski & Snowboard team have turned to VR headsets in order to give them an extra edge when competing in the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Games.
Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR headsets have been paired with balance boards which tilt in tandem with the on-screen action, to create the sensation of bombing down specific slopes during moments outside the normal training regimen.
The idea is to give athletes including Olympic champions Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin a “mental access” ahead of the main event, in the words of high performance director Troy Taylor.
Speaking to BBC Sport, Taylor said that while the real training takes place on ski slopes, it’s all about the marginal gains which you have to seek out during those off-piste moments.
“We try and get on the snow 150-200 days a year and are chasing snow around the world,” Taylor says.
“Each time we are on the snow we get maybe six to 10 training runs, for about 30-60 seconds at a time, so that is only three to 10 minutes a day. Times that by 150-200 days and it is roughly 10-20 hours a year… The Olympics is the biggest event in an athlete’s life and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that skiing on a slope six times is not optimal time.”
The Downhill, Super G, and Combined events will take place at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre, which hosted the FIA Apline Ski World Cups in 2016 and 2017; it was here where the 360 footage currently being used by the US team was captured by virtual reality start-up STRIVR, which has also worked with NFL teams.
Jeremy Bailenson, STRIVR co-founder and director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University said back in January that: “US Ski & Snowboard athletes should have a strategic advantage because they have been able to not just visualize the course, but practice it over and over again, going over decision points such as turns, and recognizing landmarks on the course.
“In addition to rehearsing body motions and decisions, they will have an overall, holistic familiarity with the course, which will be invaluable as they traverse the actual mountain. I suspect that their mental preparation will be unmatched.”
Skiers can even adjust the video feed to simulate visibility at different times of the day or in different weather conditions, and can simply pop the headsets on and jump on the boards in a hotel room, at home, or whenever whenever they feel like they need a visual refresher of a course’s layout. But the idea isn’t just to make athletes more familiar with the twists and turns of each slope.
Combined with the VR headsets and balance boards is the Halo Sport headphones by Halo Neuroscience. These cans feature soft foam tips built into the headband which transmit electrical currents to the brain’s motor cortex, in a bid to assist with muscle memory. Taylor says that use of the Halo Sport has coincided with a boost in performance of the US Nordic combined ski jump team.
Another bit of kit is a set of smart strobe goggles from Vima, which can reduce or block out vision in one or both eyes in order to strengthen athletes’ non-dominant eyes, which in theory, lead to skiers developing weaker turns on one side.
The 2018 Winter Olympics kick off this Friday, Feb. 9, with the Opening Ceremony being broadcast at 6am ET and the first skiing event, Women’s Cross-Country, taking place from 2am ET on Saturday.