Sports Sunday: Virtual Reality sports training shows promise in early studies

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Simulation training has been around for a long time. Pilots and astronauts have relied on hundreds of hours of practice in order to get ready for real-life situations. They’ve proven essential to honing appropriate skill sets.

The emergence of Virtual Reality has expanded the possibilities of using simulation training and has attracted the attention of practitioners in fields as diverse as surgery and firefighting. They’ve been able to take advantage of VR’s realism and flexibility and have been able to transfer skills learned in simulation to the real world.

Sports training would seem ripe for experimentation with VR, yet the experiments and data are scarce. A recent study published in PLOS One, Getting your game on: Using virtual reality to improve real table tennis skills, investigated whether VR training in sports can result in reliable skill acquisition.

2013 World Table Tennis Championships, Paris. Women’s Singles Semifinal. Ding Ning vs Li Xiaoxia. (CREDIT: Pierre-Yves Beaudouin)

On paper, athletes and sports teams should be able to capitalize on VR. According to the paper’s authors, “Firstly, it offers the possibility for people to train without needing access to the necessary sporting environment (e.g., a downhill slope for skiing) or multiple training partners (e.g. football). Secondly, actively incorporating VR into sports training allows users to log their performance and closely monitor their development. Thirdly, VR is scalable and provides a great degree of freedom to create and control virtual environments in diverse ways.”

The hesitancy stems from the fact that it’s uncertain whether skills acquired from simulated games transfer to real world play in so-called open skill sports. There is also the question whether skills honed during VR sessions regress over time in the real world.

To test the effectiveness of simulated training, Stefan Carlo Michalski et al tested non-professional table tennis players using HTC Vive head-mounted display (HTC, with technology by Valve Corporation, April 2016) for hardware and Eleven: Table Tennis VR (developed by Fun Labs).

According to the paper, “A quantitative score was derived for each participant based on their performance in the table tennis tasks. Scores were calculated based on the number of successful returns made in each of the three rallying tasks: backhand, forehand and alternating hits (consecutively changing from one hit of forehand to one hit of backhand).”

As can be seen from the graph above, the test group performed better than the control group, though oddly enough, the control group also showed signs of improvement even though they did not participate in the VR training.

Michalski et al concludes that VR training did, in fact, result in improvements that were transferred to real life game play. “The current findings suggest that there is value in using VR as a complementary tool for training, especially for situations in which training is logistically difficult to organise or impractical in the real world. Future research can broaden the scope of the present findings by considering VR for other skill levels and training environments.”

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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