A local 3D animation firm is developing a platform in which Ravens players will practice against holographic players. (Baltimore Sun video)
An animated, life-sized 3-D image of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appears in an otherwise vacant office in Towson with bare walls and a concrete floor.
Visible only through a special lens, he is surrounded by his teammates in their familiar white, black and gold on a "field" with hashmarks and a game clock.
"Right now, what you are seeing is a holographic football team coming at you and getting into their formation," says Jim Pietila, CEO of Mixed River, a Towson tech startup that has developed an interactivecomputer program for the Ravens and is seeking to push immersive, off-the-field preparation to new levels.
Founded late last year, Mixed River offers not virtual reality but "mixed reality," which means the real world intersects with images or data — in this case, holographic players.
Mixed River, whose co-founder, Carlson Bull, has a background in animation, meticulously created images of the Ravens as well as the Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins and other teams on the Ravens' 2017 schedule.
"You can see Roethlisberger and everybody over here to the left," said Pietila, pointing to large figures that don't exist. "Antonio Brown is right here."
"The next thing is to have Antonio Brown coming at us at game speed."
Perpetually seeking an edge, the Ravens, who open training camp July 26, and all 31 other NFL teams compete not only for top players and coaches but also for the best emerging technology.
Just as they are free to develop their own strength and conditioning regimens, clubs are given latitude by the league to explore novel training and visualization techniques developed by firms such as Mixed River or STRIVR of Menlo Park, Calif.
STRIVR, which was founded in 2015 at Stanford University and is used by the Dallas Cowboys and a handful of other NFL teams, provides players with virtual-reality headsets they use to study 360-degree video shot from varying vantage points — often from behind the quarterback — on the practice field.
"It's finding that edge that allows the game to slow down," said Trent Edwards, a STRIVR executive and former Stanford quarterback.
The NFL has invested in STRIVR, and said it is testing to see whether it can help officials-in-training acclimate to the speed of the game. The league also believes STRIVR could help prepare scouts for interviewing prospects. In addition to NFL clubs, STRIVR customers include college football teams, the NBA's Washington Wizards and the NHL's Washington Capitals.
Virtual reality also could help reduce head trauma injuries, which are under increasing scrutiny by former players and the league.
"One of the attractions to the technology is the ability to get those mental reps that don't involve contact," said Damani Leech, the NFL's vice president for football strategy and business development. "I think you see it with other technology — with the robotic tackling dummies to allow you to improve your tackling form without hitting another person."
Rather than use practice or game film, Mixed River provides simulations. Players wearing Microsoft HoloLens headsets can not only observe formations but move and respond to their holographic counterparts, such as Roethlisberger, on a real-life practice field or gymnasium, at game speed.
The effect is akin to entering a life-size Madden video game.
"It took me into a different type of reality," said NFL free agent Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, a former Tennessee Titans, University of Maryland and Towson High School defensive player who tested Mixed River's program this month along with other current and former NFL players at a football camp at Gilman School.
"There were pre-snap motions, [holographic] guys were moving across the field," Cudjoe-Virgil said. "I just felt like I had to line up and play football."
The program is so new that Mixed River's two founders arrived eager to see how the players would react. Wearing shorts and T-shirts, the players assumed their natural positions. One pointed at his hologram counterparts across the line of scrimmage and laughed. "That's crazy, y'all," he said.
"They were literally making hand signals and saying, 'This is my assignment,' " Pietila said. "It's a game of inches, so why not do whatever you can to step up that mental preparation?"
The Ravens recently signed a one-year deal with Mixed River, which is pitching its product toother NFL and college teams. Mixed River declined to divulge financial terms of the Ravens' agreement.
The Ravens already have received equipment from the company that allows them to load their plays and watch simulated players run them on computer monitors, laptops or projected spaces. Coaches can configure uniforms and numbers, stances and movements. The system uses a popular video game engine called Unity 3D.
With the program, coaches "can accurately visualize plays in the gym and teach players their assignments without having to step on the field," said Jon Dube, the Ravens' vice president of video operations, in a statement.
In the coming months, Mixed River hopes to offer the team the ability to also view plays through the HoloLens — which cost $3,000 apiece — in the way Pietila showed off Steelers players in a large office next door to the company's headquarters.
"The real power is going to come when our teams can line up against holographic players in mixed reality," said Bull, Mixed River's chief experience officer.
The Ravens staff declined interviews about exactly how they plan to use the product.
With interactive technology rapidly evolving, teams and companies don't always know what their competitors are up to.
Edwards, of STRIVR, said he hadn't heard about Mixed River and is uncertain about the application of holographic avatars to football.
"There are people out there that believe in that," Edwards said. "It feels to date a little too game-ified and too like Madden graphics. I'm not a believer in that yet. But if it improves over time, it could happen."
Leech, the NFL vice president, said he was unfamiliar with Mixed River, but he knew about mixed reality.
"I think everyone — not just in the league but across sports — is exploring how that platform can be used for competitive purposes, for fan purposes," he said.
New technology might create the need for updated rules. On game days, the league has an equity policy to ensure visiting teams have the same access as home clubs to technology, video shooting positions, coaching booths and equipment.
"I try to look at the game of football and look five or 10 years down the road," Leech said. "Are there new rules we need to govern this? What are some of the ways we see this creeping into game day where it becomes a greater concern?