Virtual reality: what role in high-level sport?

Changed on 23/09/2021
Sports federations, long sceptical about the arrival of virtual reality in their field, are now very interested in the benefits of this technology for the training of athletes.
VR et sport
© Inria / Photo C. Morel


With sophisticated training programmes, tailor-made nutrition and increasingly specialised trainers, the athletes of the last decade seem to be getting stronger, faster and better, breaking all the records of their predecessors in the process.

However, today's professional athletes seem to be reaching the limits of what their bodies and minds are capable of achieving in many disciplines. Technological innovations would thus be the main factors that would allow further improvements.

Virtual reality, the new right hand of sports coaches?

One of the technologies with the potential to considerably improve the physical and mental preparation of athletes is virtual reality, which has benefited from significant advances over the last decade. Its meteoric progress, particularly in the development of 3D and 360-degree virtual environments, offers athletes the possibility of training differently, in addition to their traditional practice.  

"One of the biggest difficulties faced by coaches is to identify a certain number of sub-skills that sportsmen and women must develop, such as game intelligence, anticipation and reflexes," explains Franck Multon, head of the MimeTIC project team, before adding: "In the field of football, for example, a goalkeeper must have good vertical or horizontal posture, resistance to effort, but also a good knowledge of the game's strategy, an ability to react quickly and anticipate. The difficulty is that he will have to mobilise all these skills at the same time during a goal save".

Virtual reality will thus make it possible to "cheat" with the environment, to isolate the sub-skills that the athlete will need to excel in order to train them individually. This is a real asset for athletes, who can thus repeat certain movements in isolation, in the most realistic environment possible, while minimising the risk of injury.

Boxeurs et réalité virtuelle

All disciplines involved

A technology that has the potential to be applied to all sports and which, although it has only recently become of interest to federations, has already attracted the interest of researchers for several years. "We started working on virtual reality in sport almost twenty years ago. At the beginning it was not easy, the athletes and trainers did not see what it could bring them, and our equipment was not what it is today. We started working with people who were already technologically aware, but we still had to show our credentials," says Franck Multon, before adding: "Today we are in great demand, but there are still a few reluctant people in the sports world".

The applications of virtual reality in different sports are numerous today. In dance, for example, it is difficult to reproduce the sensations of a dancer, but virtual reality makes it possible to work on a technical step with a virtual coach in mirror or superimposed form. In archery, the idea is to immerse athletes in an environment where the public is aggressive, in order to prepare them for these stresses during competitions. In athletics, virtual reality makes it possible to work, among other things, on passing the baton in relays without exhausting oneself, by making runners work on their coordination by giving them indicators in the environment that can give them a starting point. The latest example is football, where technology enables goalkeepers to learn to read information in the attacker's gesture to anticipate the trajectory of the ball.

At Inria, one team in particular works daily on virtual reality applications in the field of sport: MimeTIC, based at the Inria Rennes Bretagne - Atlantique centre. The team has been working with the Stade Rennais for several years now: "We have developed a serious game in virtual reality, in which the goalkeeper is taught in a recontextualised manner how to anticipate the movements of players, by following coloured targets that move in all directions. The players come by regularly, it's part of their routine," says Franck Multon. This work was carried out in conjunction with specialists in sports science, starting with the M2S laboratory (Rennes 2 University and ENS Rennes), but also relies on technological platforms that are unique in Europe, such as ImmerStar (Rennes), an immersive collaborative space that includes large-scale rooms.

Olympic Games 2024: Inria researchers involved in the preparation of athletes

As part of a call for projects under the PAI (Programme d'investissements d'avenir - Future Investment Programme) "Very high performance sport", Inria researchers are taking part in three interdisciplinary projects aimed at developing tools to help improve high-level sporting performance in the run-up to the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Among the projects selected, Revea, which is being led by the MimeTIC team, uses virtual reality to supplement an athlete's training. In boxing, for example, the tool enables the athlete to work on anticipating his opponent's attacks without having to undergo the blows of real training.

Limits to be erased, gradually

For virtual reality to take its rightful place in the sports sector, there are still a number of obstacles to overcome. Starting with the technical limits imposed by the technology itself. Certain issues relating to the sports sector cannot be tackled today because of the constraints imposed by the helmet, which does not allow for infinite movement and an exact vision of reality. In any case, Franck Multon warns: "The classic mistake in virtual reality is to want to copy reality, whereas simulation is not and will never be as developed. On the other hand, virtual reality brings new paradigms, which can cheat with the laws of physics or modify the user's perceptions".

Another issue facing virtual reality today is the conditioning of the athlete before training in virtual reality. In other words: a virtual reality experience with a subject who has not been prepared to immerse himself in the experience will fail, even with the best system in the world. "When someone plays a car driving video game, the experience is considered successful from the moment they lean into the bends on their sofa, because they anticipate the bends," says Franck Multon.

Methods and protocols now exist to maximise the chances of immersing the athlete in his or her virtual reality experience, for example by embodying him or her in an avatar, teaching him or her to manipulate his or her environment, or by preparing the brain for this same environment. As for the headsets, they are gradually improving by becoming lighter and promising reduced latencies to facilitate this experience.

These developments promise good prospects for virtual reality in the coming years.