Virtual reality to prepare for the Olympics

For four years, French scientists have been developing technological tools to help runners, boxers and gymnasts improve their training. But the effectiveness of these devices has yet to be proven.

“France is an international leader in the use of virtual reality in sports.” Frank Moulton, research director at the National Institute for Computer Science and Automation Research (Inria), says this without confirmation. For more than twenty years, specialists in sports science and virtual reality have combined their skills within the institute's branch in Rennes. Will this marginal advantage allow the French to win more medals this summer in Paris?

In theNational Institute of Sport, Experience and Performance (Insep), the temple of French heroes, boxers are already profiting from their work. A virtual reality headset is on his head, and someone keeps punching into the void. Immersed in his battle, facing a hypothetical but realistic opponent, he finished the session exhausted, with a smile on his lips. Mamadou Bakary Diabeira, the English assistant boxing coach at the French Incipe Centre, claims that he is exposed to this situation every time he suggests to a new boxer to try virtual reality.

“It's not a miracle solution, but it improves our athletes' performance, they treat these virtual sessions like real work.” He stresses, also emphasizing the possibility of providing training against the injured athlete, but without strikes. “It's a complementary tool in coaches' arsenal, and VR remains a small part of their training methods.” Richard Kolpa, coordinator of the Revea project, which aims to improve sports performance using virtual reality, confirms.

In addition to the Enria Rennes team, academics from Marseille and Reims are working on this topic, totaling about twenty people. Revea, supported by the University of Rennes 2, is one of 11 projects funded with €4.3 million, through the Priority High Performance Sports Research Programme, launched in 2020 and granted a total of €20 million by the State.

Three Olympic disciplines – boxing, athletics and gymnastics – benefit from this expertise. The boxing and athletics federations requested the ability to work virtually on defense and make decisions upon submission. The goal: to find an alternative to real training, a source of injuries.

“Once we deal with virtual reality, the questions we ask ourselves are: :What else would we bring and why can't we do this in real life? ?”

Richard Kolba, Revia Project Coordinator

In franceinfo: Sports

“Working on defense in boxing is a problem, because it requires taking hits. With “Shadow boxing” [boxe dans le vide]A boxer does not face an opponent, nor does he train to anticipate. Using VR, we can create an avatar, control the sequence and measure the athlete's performance. The number of blows he received, for example.” He continues to be a university professor of mathematical sciences.

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In the same way, the runner's avatar does not get tired and maintains its maximum speed throughout the corridors. His teammate, very real, can double his starts on a few supports. And to put the runner under pressure, it is also possible to add virtual opponents. “An athlete can practice good decision making by doing up to thirty repetitions, because the beginning requires less energy. In fact, a complete section, at maximum speed, can only be repeated five or six times. Once”, Frank Ni, head coach of the women's 4x100m team, explains.

In gymnastics, the Reims researchers have developed avatars of gymnasts to allow them to monitor their movements from every angle, even those who haven’t yet mastered their sequences. The figures the athlete performs are captured separately and the AI ​​is responsible for putting them together.

“The headset felt like a completely immersive video game.”

Zachary Hermesh, gymnast

In franceinfo: Sports

“On the pommel horse, our specialist Benjamin Osberger was taken as a model, where I was able to analyze his movement and understand how to put my body weight on a form I had not mastered.” The jumping specialist continues.

The athletes were often young, familiar with video games, and generally receptive. But the quantification of their performance may have raised concerns. “Some fear that coaches will use this data to make choices, but it is not enough.” Richard Kolba reassures, who also points out that if researchers publish their results in scientific journals, the data on high-level athletes will never be revealed.

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Insep had to be patient before he could use the different virtual reality headsets. Several months to several years of joint development and construction work between scientists and mathematicians will be necessary. The main obstacle to various projects: incompressible time for acculturation. The researchers had to learn to decipher the coaches' vocabulary and expectations. The latter, in turn, had to realize the possibilities of technological tools, but also their limitations.

Thanks to feedback, the system continued to improve, and athletes moved from wired headphones to Bluetooth technology. “Today, we cannot use it outdoors due to the sensitivity of the cameras, but soon, the sensors will be integrated and athletes will be able to train outdoors, with their competition increasing.” Frank Nee explains.

To get as close as possible to the Olympic Games environment, the helmet immerses the runners on the field of the Stade de France, with its purple track and the noise of its fans. “But for example, the signal sent by the teammate is missing.” The person in charge of the women's 4x100m relay race is sorry.

Despite four years of work, it is still too early to draw clear conclusions about the effectiveness of VR headsets on athletes' performance. “The big challenge is to allow athletes to learn something that can be applied on the pitch as well, and it has to be transferable. We work according to the logic of trial and error.” He meets Frank Moulton.

“We see that those who have already tried the headsets improve their decision-making in the virtual environment, but we don’t have a perspective on whether there is an effect in reality.”

Richard Korzaz, head of the French men's 4×100 meters team

In franceinfo: Sports

Faced with the lack of studies, the coach reserves the use of VR for training periods and not when major deadlines are approaching. The same ambiguity is observed in gymnastics. If gymnasts are accustomed to always checking their images on video after the session, the most immersive VR tool will be offered sparingly. He added: “We have not seen the effects yet, and we are in the exploratory phase. Honoring Nicolas Tordi, Scientific Advisor of the French Gymnastics Federation (FFG). “We don't yet know when or how often headphones should be introduced.”

First of all, in gymnastics, the tool took a long time to introduce. The fault lies with the AI, which has difficulty reconstructing movements far from natural motor skills such as walking. “To create an avatar with one minute of movement, it took three weeks of work.” Nicola Tordi explains.

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With the culmination of the Olympics, the REVIA project should end at the end of 2024. Scientists and the sports world are working behind the scenes to ensure that existing links continue and the work done continues. Two main routes emerge. The first is about transferring work to companies that see potential opportunities in these technologies. The second depends on continuous funding from the state or investment from unions.

“I think the impact of virtual reality on learning in gymnastics will be more evident in 2028 than 2024.” He predicts who has supported the FFG since 2000 on the scientific side. “We will implement all this two years after the Olympics.” Frank Moulton agrees. It remains for the researchers, during this period of time, to stay one step ahead of the competition so that the French athletes maintain this advantage that could one day make the difference.

Frank Mccarthy

<p class="sign">"Certified gamer. Problem solver. Internet enthusiast. Twitter scholar. Infuriatingly humble alcohol geek. Tv guru."</p>

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