What is virtual reality supposed to do?
For a lot of us, we hear words like Alzheimer’s and dementia and place them in the same bracket as sorting out your pension – something we don’t need to think about as they’re the concern of old people.
In reality, though, when you consider the number of ex-athletes who are being diagnosed with such issues, it certainly is something we should pay a lot more attention to. This is especially the case when you consider many of these diagnoses are not linked to crunching tackles in rugby or body-rattling collisions in contact sports. In fact, as is the case in soccer, they’re a result of many accumulating small head impacts, such as simply heading a ball throughout a career.
Often, in fact, these repetitive head impacts (RHI), also known as subconcussive impacts, are so innocuous they do not even register to the player or staff that they’ve occurred. But they add up.
This is where virtual reality may come in. It has attracted much interest as a training solution because it not only allows safe, repeatable training tasks, but it affords complete control over the training environment. Before sport, these benefits made virtual reality a favourite for training surgeons. Obviously, this is an environment where you don’t get much wiggle room to make mistakes!
Although, it’s accepted this removes the vital stress elements of the task, which we might equate to playing in front of 80,000 people, but it does provide a useful learning platform. It is with these reward-without-risk benefits that there is potential of carryover to sport.
One key factor here though is realism. As humans, we have a great ability to disengage from the unrealistic, which is why as computer games graphics continue to improve, their popularity continues to grow. Virtual reality technology now is at a point where our brains are willing to accept what we see when we are immersed in that space. This can go as far as to even include the details of opposition players, specific stadia and the ability to program in actual events that took place in yesterday’s match.
This enables a multitude of uses across a growing number of sports. Briefly, this could be replaying a set piece where an error was made in the match at the weekend or allowing a rehabilitating player to immerse themselves in recent action so they can still consider their decision-making during such plays.
But back to concussion. There is growing evidence that skill acquisition (the way we improve at the technical and tactical side of a sport) and virtual reality can co-exist. So, let’s have a look at the evidence to see how sportspeople in the near-future might be able to continue to hone their skills while reducing the risks associated with head injuries.