How the HTC Vive Pro will help professional cricketers train against pressure

We explore the psychology behind replicating crowd noise, situations and environments

My knees are crouched and my elbows locked as I grip the bat and tap down next to my right foot, like I've done thousands of times before. I look back up at the bowler, look down again and then fix my eyes on his right hand.

"Watch the ball, watch the ball," I chant in my head – again, like I've done thousands of times before.

Only, this wasn't like all the other times I've found myself stood at the crease, awaiting a delivery, letting instinct take over when it fizzes down the pitch and then resetting. No, this time, my thousand-yard stare at the ball was happening in the virtual world. There is no bowler – no real one, anyway – and instead my brain is reacting to what I'm seeing inside Incisiv's virtual reality batting system – something that's soon to be used to help develop professional players' performance in pressurised situations.

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The ball, travelling at 85mph, flies past my off stump. And instinctively, as an opening batsmen, I leave it to sting the palms of the pretend wicket keeper, almost turning away and avoiding the gaze of the bowler – part of that resetting process I've spent around 17 years conditioning myself with. A small nudge from the HTC Vive Pro's Power Bank in my back pocket, though, and I'm brought back into reality.

I briefly lift the lid of the headset and take off one of the Vive's built-in headphones, something that's filtering rapturous crowd noise into my ears.

How the HTC Vive Pro is used to prepare for pressure situations in professional sport

"How was that, did it feel real?" asks James Stafford, a PhD student working at the Movement Innovation Lab in Belfast, where Incisiv was born. He tells me he's spent months alongside the team in Northern Ireland, trying to hone the mechanics of the R&D system so it feels as lifelike as possible.

And it does feel real. So much so, between thoughts of, "I wish I had this when I was an eight-year-old", I was thinking in exactly the same way I usually would when out in the middle.

Scanning the field, twisting the bat – a real bat with a Vive Tracker attached to the handle – in my hands and analysing where the bowler may go next. The next ball is dug in short, and I jump with the ball to try match the bounce. The red markers around my VR vision tell me it's cracked into my ribs. Not ideal, but at least I can't feel it.

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And as Cathy Craig, Inciciv's co-founder, CEO and world-leading professor in experimental psychology in sport, tells me, this replication of the real world is the most important aspect of the new technology.

If you don’t have behavioural realism, you don’t have that transfer to the real world

"Cricketers are used to having something on their head already, and we’d usually put pads on and try and replicate that feel," she says. "And because you’ve got the sensation of using a real bat in your hand, your brain knows you're holding a physical object, it can feel it in your muscles, then visually you're getting feedback from your eyes at the same time."

"That really helps with something we call behavioural realism, which essentially just means you’re behaving in the virtual world as you would in the real world – and for me, that’s critically important. If you don’t have behavioural realism, you don’t have transfer to the real world," she continues.

"That’s the difference between gamification, where it's about approximations, and it’s roughly this, and roughly that. This has to be one-to-one mapping. That’s what excites me about this technology – you’ve essentially got a motion capture system."

How the HTC Vive Pro is used to prepare for pressure situations in professional sport

Creating a virtual world that replicates the cauldron of a professional sporting environment is tough enough, but, again, the crux of Incisiv is to help players grow comfortable with the uncomfortable state of being under pressure.

And it does this in countless ways. Players will be challenged to hit a boundary off specific balls. Crowd noise will grow louder in an attempt to create hostile scenarios. There's even an option to manipulate the cracks in the pitch and the way the ball reacts off it.

The first thing that happens in any sport, when pressure is involved, is that it affects your performance

As my demonstration of the tech goes on, I'm not privy to all the variables that can be thrown in by Stafford, Craig and the team, and I'm instead allowed to get my eye in.

I begin seeing the ball more clearly – as one would in a real game – and get used to the blistering pace, running balls down to third-man and hanging my bat at length balls – again, for me, just like in real life. But there's still pressure, even in this closed world.

"This project is all about seeing how we can use this technology to create pressure cooker scenarios for players. The first thing that happens in any sport, when pressure is involved, is that it affects your performance," Craig says.

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And the ECB and Cricket Ireland have taken notice, with the company in conversations with both of the international cricket boards. So much so, the ECB's lead batting coach, former England international Graham Thorpe, is keen to use the technology in academies. The idea, as Craig imagines it, is to give young players their first experience of facing a 90mph delivery in a controlled and safe environment.

"If you get hit by that kind of ball an early age, that's you done – you might develop a fear and you might never be the same. It might always stay with you," she says.

How the HTC Vive Pro is used to prepare for pressure situations in professional sport

And, of course, this isn't the first tool professional cricketers have used to train their skills and find an edge on the field. Most notably, ahead of the 2010-11 Ashes series, the ECB and England team began trialling a system called ProBatter, which showed a video of opposition bowlers running up before a bowling machine delivered the ball in time with the release. However, Craig believes this kind of psychological training isn't up to the same bar as Incisiv.

"It’s terrible," she laughs. "The ball would always land in the same position, so it had absolutely nothing to do with the bowling action. And from a psychological point of view, you’re already picking up a lot of information from the bowler – you’re already picking up info on arm position, and about release point. The Australians showed that all you actually do is focus on the hole in the screen.

"For me, this tech is about replication, and that’s the different thing to other technologies," she says.

Craig isn't wrong – this is different to other technologies, and one of the few examples of virtual reality I've tried (and there's been many) that's strong enough to remain immersive throughout and where the tangible benefits are obvious.

How the platform is adopted by cricketing bodies from here, of course, is vital in its own development. If we were betting, though, we'd expect the next generation of academy stars and professional players will be spending hours with Incisiv, rather than tiring out fellow players or the bowling machine.

Again, I wish I'd had it when I was eight years old.



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