Medicine, take a cue from the sports simulation industry

The history of simulation training in sports reaches back to the 1980’s when Dr. Wayne Burroughs of the University of Central Florida developed a simulation-based trainer for baseball batters.  Using films of collegiate baseball pitchers throwing fastballs, Burroughs’ technology created a series of learning trials designed to train batters to better identify types of pitches.  Despite promising results in his pilot study, Burroughs wasn’t able to convince any major league team to adopt the trainer.  Part of the technology’s failure probably stemmed from inherent resistance to innovation in training style.  To coaches at the time, training wasn’t “real” if you couldn’t smell glove leather.

The other part, the reason why sports simulation has lagged behind simulation in other fields, like aviation or medicine, is that the stakes just haven’t been high enough.  When a pilot doesn’t have the opportunity to troubleshoot high-risk scenarios on the ground before he’s forced to encounter them in flight, his odds of dying increase, perhaps substantially.  If a baseball player in 1985 didn’t have the chance to practice batting against a high-powered pitcher before the actual game, he played with a lower batting average.

But over the last few decades we’ve witnessed what some have called a performance revolution.  Elite athletes are stronger, faster, and even taller than they were just a few decades ago, and with unprecedented athletic performance has come levels of competition that were unheard of 40 years ago. This – and, of course, the fact that professional sports is now a $70 billion dollar industry in North America alone – has created a demand for technology to hone the strength, skill, and dexterity of even the world’s most innately talented athletes.   Despite its sluggish start, the cutting edge of sports simulation now rivals top-of-the-line simulation technology of any other field.   

Take the SkyTechSport Sochi Simulator, for an example.  Developed by engineers and physicists, the simulator used GPS data, virtual reality technology, and 3D goggles to create a visually precise simulation of a mountain course in the 2014 winter Olympics, allowing skiers and snowboarders to practice the run before racing.  Or the sensor technology designed by scientists at the University of Delaware.  Figure skaters, after strapping on the body sensors that track even their smallest movements, can watch a recreation of their routines in a simulated 3D environment, highlighting where small changes can be made to improve technique and avoid repeated falls.  

Perhaps the buzziest technology of late has been the virtual reality environment created by STRIVR Labs, a self-proclaimed “immersive performance training” company out of Stanford University.  Their VR headset uses real video – not animation or computer generated images – of each team’s individual players to create customized, high-fidelity, game-like situations.  Initially developed for American football, where the response on behalf of coaches and players has been overwhelmingly positive, STRIVR now creates virtual environments in basketball, hockey, soccer, and more.  According to the Bleacher Report, STRIVR’s technology is “changing sports forever.”  

Now, the sports simulation industry, barely in its adolescence, is inspiring the next wave of simulation technology in medicine.  The trajectory of simulation in sports has provided a memorable lesson for doctors: if the stakes are high and the money is there, it’s only a matter of time before science fiction becomes plain science.


By Nicole Van Groningen