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‘Get some (VR) glasses, ref!’ NFL considers training referees with virtual reality

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Scott Boehm/AP

Referees are human and will miss calls, but the NFL wants to make them the best that they can be.  That’s why the NFL is testing the use of immersive technology such as virtual reality to train referees, according to an email from an NFL spokesperson sent to SportsTechie.

The initiative is currently in the early phases, according to NFL’s chief information officer, Michelle McKenna-Doyle, speaking with BizTech Magazine. This new training may prove to be essential following this past season. Besides superstar quarterbacks fearing for their safety due to precarious missed calls from refs, the NFL even acknowledged that refs missed an astounding 16 calls in the September 11 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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Little is known about how the NFL will use this emerging technology to train referees, but you can get somewhat of an idea by assessing prior VR training programs pursued by the NFL. At least seven NFL teams have used virtual reality to train players in the past year using either EON Sports or Strivr, two VR companies specializing in sports training. In 2015, the Minnesota Vikings would put the jerseys of the team’s next opponent’s defenders in VR and have their former starting quarterback Terry Bridgewater go through reps practicing.

“So [Bridgewater] sees their blitzes over and over, and in seven-on-seven, the different run fronts they have, and make checks off of them,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer told ESPN. “It’s a chance for them to play the game a few times before they play the game.” Applying that to referees, observing the smallest rule infractions — illegal contact on a receiver, a slight offsides — in realistic 3D detail could be a useful form of training using VR.

As long as the NFL does not bring back replacement referees, a little virtual reality training could benefit everyone — fans, teams, and players alike.