X's and O's become 3-D

A Hunt Valley firm's new technology allows Ravens to visualize plays from many viewpoints

December 28, 2006|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,Sun reporter

Every Thursday morning, Ravens assistant offensive line coach Greg Roman drills his players on what to expect in upcoming games - only here, this isn't about X's and O's on chalkboards.

Created with a new technology called Play Visualizer, the pictures that Roman's charges see in these strategy sessions show plays from a variety of viewpoints - behind the offense, even through the eyes of the quarterback - rather than from the limited angles available through traditional video.

The technology, developed by Hunt Valley-based sports technology company 3D MVP, will officially launch next month. But the Ravens, headed to the playoffs in January after winning 12 of their first 15 regular season games, have been testing it since inception two years ago.

"There's no question that as a teaching tool it's far superior to anything we've gotten or used," Ravens head coach Brian Billick said of Play Visualizer. "It's taken what we do to another level."

Play Visualizer allows coaches and players to watch plays from virtually any angle 3D re-creations of plays taken from video. Coaches can also use the tool to create their own computerized plays, which is the way Roman uses it.

"It allows you to show the perspective you want to show all the time," Roman said.

Digital simulation is being used for training in various fields, including the military and medicine. 3D MVP is releasing its new sports tool as teams around the country embrace the digital world, said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon's College of Business.

But the true test of any new technology isn't the gee-whiz factor, but whether it helps the team win games.

"Does this form of training actually work?" Swangard said. "Because there's always good technology to throw at problems, but it doesn't mean it solves the problem. Just because your shoe can now tell you how far you ran as an athlete doesn't mean you run better. It's just a tool, so it still comes back to how it's used, how it's implemented."

Being able to see actual plays is a big step up for players and coaches used to looking at abstract X's and O's, said Murray Taylor, a co-founder of 3D MVP.

Plus, the video used in most film study sessions is shot largely from sidelines, end zones and above the field.

"The problem is that's not the perspective the players play the game at," said Billick, who believes Play Visualizer will someday replace video as a coaching tool.

That Billick is testing the technology doesn't come as a surprise. He is widely considered a pioneer for the way he uses technology in his work.

But Billick isn't the only Ravens coach using the technology.

PowerPoint

Roman uses images created with Play Visualizer in PowerPoint presentations during his weekly strategy meetings with the Ravens offense. During the off-season, players wear goggles that make the pictures appear three-dimensional as they go over plays one-on-one with coaches.

"Here's a play we might run, and when you install it you can segment; you can go through [and show], `OK, here's the play we're running, here's the blocking, here's the pattern,'" Roman said one recent afternoon, as a picture of a play was projected onto a screen at the Ravens' Owings Mills training facility. "This plus PowerPoint gives you a nice little installation, teaching progression."

Dave Nash, a video technician for the Oakland Raiders, also has access to the technology, Taylor said. Mike Working, who is quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator for the Canadian Football League's Winnipeg Blue Bombers, owns a piece of 3D MVP and also uses the technology.

Play Visualizer is expected to cost about $250,000 for the NFL version, $100,000 for the college version and $50,000 for a viewer that can be used to watch 3D plays but not edit them, the company said.

While the tool is not intended as a mass-market technology, Taylor expects there eventually will be a scaled-down version that high schools can buy. (Neither Billick nor the Ravens have a financial stake in Play Visualizer or 3D MVP, the company said.)

The price tag can be justified for NFL teams whose success or failure equals millions of dollars of revenue, Swangard said.

"If it gives the team a demonstrated edge, it's probably priced well," he said.

3D MVP says that it is not trying to replace video, but to show players and coaches a different perspective on the game.

"It just gives you a bird's-eye view of what defense you're looking at," said offensive tackle Mike Kracalik, who is on the Ravens' practice squad.

Ravens guard Ikechuku Ndukwe, 24, has been playing football since the seventh grade. When he started, coaching tools included chalkboards and videotapes.

"To see it now in 3-D is pretty cool," said Ndukwe. "You definitely see what the defense ... is going to try and do to you. It definitely helps out a lot."

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