An Advanced Virtual Environment for Rugby Skills Training (The Academic Perspective)

  • Academic: Professor Nigel John
  • Student: Helen Miles
  • Company: Rygbi Innovatons Cyf

How the project came about

I was approached by Kenton Morgan, who is involved with Rugby in North Wales. Kenton was aware that at Bangor University we have a research interest in developing virtual environments and he wanted to know if this technology could help with training and rugby skills.

Brian Moore

The inspiration for the training task we selected came from the BBC Wales Scrum 5 programme, who a couple of years ago has a segment called the Brian Moore challenge. They had a big cardboard cut-out of Brian Moore, a famous English forward, with his mouth open; their guests, also well-known rugby players, past and present, had to see how many rugby balls they could throw from 20 yards away through the hole in Brian Moore’s mouth.

The Project

For the project we decided to explore ball passing skills and to see whether we could create an environment in which a real person with a real ball as an interface could be given virtual targets.
The aim was to create a virtual version of the Brian Moore game using 3D stereoscopic large-scale displays, we would have different targets to aim at, and what we ended up using were archery targets. These targets can appear anywhere and any distance away from the user, and the user (a rugby player) would have a real rugby ball which we could track.

The user would aim and throw the ball towards the targets, the rugby ball would be tethered on an elastic bungee and after it left their hand the bungee stopped it from flying off into the screens. We set up our tracking technology to give us information about the direction and speed of the real ball as it left their hand.

Within the project we created a physics model of a rugby ball in flight, so given input parameters of the rugby ball being thrown in at this speed and this direction, what are the laws of physics telling us about where it was going to end up and was it going to hit the target. Where we set it up virtually, we could introduce other parameters like a wind direction maybe that would affect the ball in flight.

We created an environment where you throw a real rugby ball and it leaves your hands, then a virtual ball takes over using our physics engine of where the ball is going to go in flight and hit the target, this exercise can be repeated as many times as you’d like within the virtual environment. It allows more efficiency when performing this task and more variability in changing the tasks, all of that information can be looked at after the training session. This means that the coaches can see what they are doing well and what they aren’t doing so well, giving feedback and learning more about what is happening during that training time as a result.

Multidisciplinary working

Most projects today need multi-disciplinary skills; it’s getting more and more difficult to only apply computer science techniques when developing novel applications, so we need to be collaborating.

This project is the first time that we’ve done a sporting application as well as computer science; it has allowed us to collaborate with the School of Sports, Health and Exercise Science and the School of Psychology here at Bangor, so there has been an excellent team involved in this project. It has been good in establishing links with other schools in the University and we’ve also been able to establish links internationally because of the project.

International links

One problem we had at the beginning of the project was the specialised equipment required for a high fidelity virtual environment, which we didn’t have at Bangor.

I applied to a scheme that I came across, where the European Union were funding several universities across Europe who had large scale virtual reality centres and this consortium of centres were offering their facilities to other institutions who had a project idea but didn’t have the equipment.

My application was successful and we were partnered with Aix-Marseille University, in the South of France, where they have what is known as a reconfigurable CAVE. This is a large scale environment where you could set it up in to a square room or a large power wall or L shape type displays, there was a lot of flexibility.

Both Helen (the PhD student) and I went to Marseille to do some of our first prototyping using their facilities. There’s been very good links with that group, and we are continuing to work with them today. Later on in the project we gained access to new visualisation facilities at the Hartree Centre at the Daresbry Laboritories in Cheshire, who had just put in place a UK high performance computing resource, open to UK academia.

Potential impact

This project establishes Bangor as having expertise which opens the doors to looking at other skills within Rugby and other sports. This could be the start of a whole portfolio of future projects using virtual environments for sports training.

Final thoughts on KESS

KESS provides a great environment, I think the infrastructure and the other things that they do for the students, for example the different events organised, is all good experience, and adds a lot of value to what would have been your traditional PhD at Bangor before.

I think KESS works really well at encouraging this type of multi-disciplinary collaboration, and of course you have to have the commercial link as well