Project could alter way teams prepare for games

Thursday, August 30, 2001

By Rob Hoffman

Forget "Everybody Loves Raymond."

Consider this sitcom moment from Klaus-Peter Beier's real life in 1999.

Here he was, a German-born research scientist who had seen, at most, five football games in his life. And he was staring right into the eyes of University of Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, who was eagerly awaiting Beier's answer to the day's burning question.

"Can you do the wishbone?"

A chicken part? A salad dressing? The clueless director of U-M's Virtual Reality Laboratory knew he had to please his audience. So he furrowed his brow.

"Ohhhh, the wishbone," Beier said in a thoughtful voice as the room in the football office, packed with Carr and his assistants, fell silent. "I think we can do the wishbone."

Everyone cheered.

Returning to his office at the College of Engineering a little later, Beier had only one question for his staff: "What the heck is a wishbone?"

Two years later, that bit of slapstick has been replaced by a mind-blowing reality. Beier's team of computer programmers, engineers, modelers and animators have put together the "Virtual Football Trainer," an immense program that could change the way football teams train.

By entering a 10-foot-by-10-foot room in the Media Union known as the "CAVE" (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) and donning a pair of high-tech goggles, you instantly find yourself on the turf at a faux Michigan Stadium. In front, at the side and behind you are three-dimensional players. Not just images on a computer screen, but ghostly holographic presences that you can actually walk around.

"The innovative thing that we did was we generated a full set of fully animated players from a two-dimensional playbook," said Beier, whose lab had previously specialized in virtual airport terminals, pyramids and art museum. "That, as far as we know, has never been done before."

A few mouse clicks by a computer operator outside the cave and a play, the Denver-Michigan Chase, unfolds. Michigan offensive linemen grapple with defensive ends in Michigan State helmets, who inch uncomfortably closer to the backfield. Defensive backs sag deep into coverage, slowly diminishing in size as they attach themselves to speeding wideouts. Suddenly your host - the ghost quarterback-releases the ball. Down the field, a distant tight end snags the pigskin and is dragged down inside the 5-yard line. A big gain.

That's just the beginning of the trainer's nearly endless capabilities. See the same play as if you were the receiver. From the perspective of a defender on the other side of the field. From the sideline. From the stands. From the press box. From the blimp that slowly floats over the simulated Big House.

A few more clicks by the operator and the cornerback is a step slower. The big gain becomes a game-winning touchdown. Or the receiver briefly zags right before heading downfield to grab the pass.

Select an entirely new play -one where a tailback with the number 32 on his back slices through the right side of the line. Run it again and the gaping hole next to the right guard closes up. Watch the play as if you are that tailback, fooling you enough to reach for the handoff that never slams into your chest. Or see it as if you were running 2 feet behind the player.

It might not be the real thing, but the Virtual Football Trainer comes pretty darn close, says the U-M player who inspired the No. 7 taking the simulated snaps - former Wolverine quarterback Tom Brady, who saw an early version of the program in 1999.

Back then, the players were more like stiff chess pieces. Brady, who admits he was skeptical until he saw the program firsthand, said he knew the simulated reality could teach him to play better in ways that playbooks or videotapes never could.

"From what I saw, it could be an incredible tool," said Brady, a backup quarterback for the New England Patriots, who has shared some of his thoughts on the lab's Web site ( "It looks very realistic."

Carr, who proposed the idea after learning about the eight-year-old lab's capabilities, said the program could solve an age-old dilemma that coaches face: teaching quarterbacks to read defenses during the off-season, when NCAA rules force players to work out alone. Visits to the weight room in February could be supplemented by regular sessions in the CAVE.

"What they've done with it is pretty exciting stuff," he said. "It creates the possibility that you can learn something and improve an aspect of your game without actually physically doing it."

Repetition is the program's main selling point. Brady said he needs to see a defensive scheme over and over again before he gets it down pat. Even the most physically fit players would probably collapse after running the same play 50 to 60 times in a row. Not the trainer.

Brad Canale, the College of Engineering's executive director of college relations, was the school official who introduced Carr and Brady to Beier. He said a trainer could have helped U-M quarterback John Navarre last year prepare for UCLA, which employed a variety of defensive schemes that the redshirt freshman had never seen. U-M coaches could immediately send freshmen to the CAVE, exposing them to game-like experiences that would eventually help them adjust quicker to the collegiate game.

"When they take more and more snaps, they're going to be more and more sophisticated in their reads," he said.

The Virtual Football Trainer is not a finished product. The current version marks the completion of a feasibility study, where - with the help of about $150,000 in private donations -Beier's team demonstrated that they could do the program Carr requested. Now, Beier hopes to attract private investors willing to fund further improvements and make the program marketable.

Among other things, Beier would like the program to respond to voice commands, rather than require a computer operator; expand the playbook; vary the size and appearance of the players so they don't all have the dimensions of former U-M tight end Jerame Tuman; and improve the animation so the angular players look less like rejects from a Sega Genesis game circa 1993.

Also, Beier wants to make the program less passive, so that users don't just watch the action unfold but must interact with the surroundings, a feature that Brady said might be critical to the program's ultimate success.

"I'm sure a lot of people will be cynical until (the action) is really simulated," Brady said. "If it's a close copy, I don't think it will be good enough. It's got to be really real."

Building a CAVE-like environment could cost upward of $1 million. The program itself could be priced in six figures. That means NFL teams and well-funded college programs are the mostly likely customers for the trainer, which Beier hopes to put on the market by the beginning of 2002.

For high schools and other colleges, the developers envision a scaled-down version costing $1,000 to $2,000 that would be available over the Internet or on CD-ROMS. Coaches could download their entire playbook into the program, allowing players to learn moves by watching 3-D animation of each play on their home computers. Another potential market could be hardcore football fans.

Despite his years of work, Beier doesn't fall into the last category yet. He knows about the wishbone offense now, but he admits that the game still is somewhat mysterious to him.

"Football is very complicated," he said. "But I'm learning more and more."