Sense Arena CEO Bob Setiva in an ice hockey rink with a hockey stick.

Training ice hockey players in Virtual Reality: An interview with Sense Arena’s CEO Bob Tetiva

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To celebrate the Ice Hockey World Championship Games, we talked to Sense Arena founder and CEO Bob Tetiva about how virtual reality helps ice hockey players and goalies develop their performance and hockey sense. An official cognitive training partner of two NHL teams and pro team subscriptions around the world, Tetiva’s company has a big vision for enriching the sports and giving fans new experiences with virtual reality.

Could you tell a little bit about yourself? What is your background working with virtual reality, and sports?

I’m Bob Tetiva, a Czech-based entrepreneur and CEO of Sense Arena, a VR training system for ice hockey players and goalies. Sports are in my soul: I’m a former professional basketball player, after which I converted to alpine skiing, working on the marketing side, and actually my father was an Olympic basketball player, in the 1950s and 60s.

My professional career outside sports includes more than fifteen years running product development and innovations in the telecoms sector, including developing one of the first European mobile banking and payments innovations in the 1990s. After I finished corporate life I went onto doing start-ups. My first company was a skiing headwear company that I sold after three years; then I founded a digital virtual reality studio and agency, which I sold after about six years. This experience formed the foundation for Sense Arena, which is based on emerging technology that came to the market around 2016-17.

What does Sense Arena do?

We are a Prague-based company with offices in Boston and Toronto and a global client base. We provide a virtual reality training system for ice hockey players and goalies. We currently have over a thousand subscriptions, and more than 5,000 active users around the world.

How does Sense Arena virtual hockey training work?

You put the VR headset on, and we place you onto the ice, in an NHL size rink, and you have a real practise there. We have two modules of the system: one for players, and one for goalies. If you’re a player, you have your stick in your hands, and you can wear your gloves as well. There’s a special sensor on the stick, and you hold your physical equipment just as you do on ice, and you see the environment through the helmet. We track the position of the stick, and that is then visualised in the VR simulation. The teammates in the simulation are artificial intelligence avatars that we’ve taught how to behave and to react realistically. 

We have more than fifty drills where you practise different skills and game scenarios; we call them small area games. You can play with your teammates, you have to trick defensive players, and you can shoot and pass, score and receive the puck. The puck is virtual, so you don’t have to worry about destroying anything around you! You need a minimum three by three meters’ space so you can swing the stick, but we have also worked with spaces as big as eight by eight, and with gyms that have synthetic ice where players can skate and do moves. And then you practise!

What are the benefits of VR ice hockey training?

The key benefit is the really high intensity of the training, because you are the centre of all the drills. In standard practice, let’s say you have twenty kids on the ice for one hour, and you are in action for about 10-12 minutes, and you actually hold the puck for about one and a half minutes over the one-hour practise. In our VR practise, you do thousands of touches and repetitions, so half an hour in VR would be equivalent to about 2.5 hours practise on ice. You wouldn’t survive such a long sustained practise on ice, but in simulation you can achieve a huge learning curve in a short space of time, amounting to roughly five times more intensity of training.

VR simulation speeds up player development of the cognitive functions, or the hockey sense as we call it; the hockey IQ. In the goalie version, you are in the crease, and there are drills to improve the reading of the release of the shooters, facing screens, managing the traffic in front of you, working on your positioning; it’s a different skillset than the players. Now that the professional season is shortened – the NHL play over four months only – the impact on the players’ bodies is really intensive. For the goalies, they like to use Sense Arena when they don’t want to go on ice, but want work from home, working on some of the skills such as reading the release, and in VR practise their body doesn’t get as worn as wearing all the equipment. We have more than forty pro NHL goalies using Sense Arena, and they have found it really valuable. I’m really proud of that.

Demonstration of VR-based ice hockey player training. Video: Sense Arena.

How does VR improve the performance and cognitive function of ice hockey players?

It’s my strong belief that the brain is the most important ‘muscle’ in every body, including athletes’ bodies. If you look at how little attention has been given to the brain historically, it’s pretty incredible. Historically, athletes’ training was all about strength and conditioning, you know – push-ups and pull-ups. Then the focus shifted to technology – the materials of the shoes, the apparel, jerseys, wearable devices, and so on – and also to special nutrition, sleeping, and so on.

But not very much has been done historically on improving the cognitive functions that drive your performance, your decision-making and spatial awareness – the very things that control the rest of the body. Especially in team sports, that’s really important, because that really creates the experience – the play for the others and yourself. When you watch hockey, basketball or football, the fans go crazy when they see smart action, and I strongly believe this can be taught: you don’t have to be born with it; it’s something you can develop.

If you talk to neuroscientists, they say the brain works based on experiences, and that is how you learn. If you put a hockey player in an environment where they can experience the game, say a thousand times, again and again, the brain will experience different decision-making situations and learn from that. So it’s about a simulation of the game environment. You couldn’t play two real hockey games a day, it would be physically impossible, but you can achieve that kind of experience by simulation in virtual reality.

In a virtual reality simulation, you see the ice, the rink, the teammates, the opponents, the goalie, and you touch the puck; you do all the same things, except you are not on real ice; you stay at home or in the gym. And by the number of repetitions, you keep working on memorising the decisions and the environment, recognizing the patterns, and that is how you improve your game, and your cognitive functions related to the game.

Demonstration of VR-based ice hockey goalie training. Video: Sense Arena.

Which ice hockey teams use Sense Arena for VR training? How often do the players train in virtual reality?

We have five NHL organisations that use Sense Arena on a daily basis. We recently announced three-year contracts as the official cognitive training partners with New Jersey Devils and Arizona Coyotes, who are using both the player and goalie versions of the platform, as part of their training programme.

In addition to the NHL organizations, we have more than one thousand installations, with an average weekly usage of more than 40 minutes, which equals to about one training session per week. This to me proves that the passion is there to use the VR training method.

What’s the geographical spread of VR ice hockey training?

Our customer base is currently in twenty-four countries. The geographical spread is high, but the highest concentration of our installations is in North America, with the USA and Canada accounting for about 87% of users, while only 13% are based across Europe, with some in Japan, Australia and Malaysia.

In Switzerland, Davos use the system; the Germany Hockey Federation also have a system at their training hub. We have no Nordic team yet, but we do have home users in Sweden and Finland. We have almost ten pro teams in Czech and Slovakia, while in Russia we have some uptake on a private basis.

In general, in Europe the players tend to buy the system for themselves privately, whereas in North America, the hockey business is about the private training centres where you practice on top of the team practise. Across the USA and Canada they have almost 100 training centres, where they have the system to do the VR workout.

How do ice hockey players use Sense Arena?

We’ve noticed two very different approaches to using the system. The older players and goalies tend to focus on getting better and improving their skills; they are working with focused training plans. Whereas the young ones mainly want to have fun! If they play a drill, they can get data points like their score and some efficiency measures, and they can immediately see their score against the others, have challenges and competitions. This gives the kids more reason to come back and work hard on their skills, without even realising they are working hard – because they are having fun, and enjoying the sport they love.

How is VR used by ice hockey teams for marketing and recruitment?

From the beginning of the next season, when the arenas open again for fans, there will be a fan engagement area in the NHL. For fans it will be a big experience to be in the crease virtually, facing the pro guys, being able to feel the depth of the arena, experiencing the speed of the shot; to have that physical experience!

The Jersey Devils are also using our VR tools to recruit new kids, and to give the parents the experience, too. For me, virtual reality is not about replicating real life, but about adding a new dimension to the sport: it’s about enriching the experience and the training.

Sense Arena includes analytics and diagnostics features in the VR training. Could you tell us about how these features work? What are the benefits?

When you look at the virtual training gym, it’s a kind of a digital cage, and everything you do inside it, whether it’s your acceleration, reaction speed or decision-making, can be measured. Another benefit of the VR environment is that the conditions are stable and always the same, whereas in the real world the conditions will be different depending on where you are – whether in Helsinki, Boston or Prague. This element of VR training can be leveraged for competitions and benchmarking. You can test the quality of players and goalies, assess their areas for improvements and strengths, and really focus the practise by creating tailored training plans based on the data.

The way the analytics part works is that we have some events that we measure, and the data from those touch points is run through the analytics. The results are either shown immediately on the scoreboard, or you can drill into the results later. For example, you can see how you’ve scored on your peripheral vision, reaction time, release time, and your ability to see; your player tracking. There’s a cloud platform where the data is stored, and a user management function with analytics that the coaches can benefit from.

Has the pandemic affected how ice hockey players are training? Has there been a surge of interest in VR based training?

The pandemic has really helped us, because while rinks and training centres were shut, our tool has enabled people to continue training, whether in their garage or basement. On the flipside, of course, some people have been conservative and afraid of the investment. However, generally speaking, the pandemic has given us a huge boost in acceptance, adoption and usage. For example in the US, they are now living in a post-Covid mind-set, and over there we are seeing a boom in usage, and selling a lot.  

In your view, what does the future of VR-based sports training look like?

The industry is being born, as we speak. Currently, there are another four companies in the world offering VR sports training, with each of us having a silo approach to one sport – baseball, ice hockey, soccer and American football. Skiing, lacrosse and golf are also doing things with virtual reality, but I believe team sport concepts bring the most added value. The industry is developing fast, with us alone having more than 5,000 users. In baseball, a company called Winreality is doing a great job; and football is moving ahead, too. I can see a nice adoption curve.

When I first landed in the US with the first prototype three years ago, everyone was really sceptical, wondering whether it will work and thinking it seemed complicated. People were asking for proof of performance; and we made two university studies proving the case. But now nobody is asking these questions anymore, because people can just put on the helmet, and the experience immediately proves the value. So in the few years we’ve been in business, we’ve already witnessed a huge curve in terms of customer acceptance.

In the future, there are many opportunities to penetrate into more sports. Besides that, the evolution of the VR technology will also provide more opportunities, for example, we’ll be able to develop our tools to full-body tracking from the current focus on just the stick, upper body and hands. We are also working on a secret project, where we want to bring real-life action into VR. This will not be just a simulation, but you’ll be able to see what’s really been happening on the ice with the other players.

Can you sum up the benefits of VR ice hockey training, compared to real-world training?

1. The intensity of the training – because of the number of repetitions.

2. The ultimate tool for training your hockey sense – because you can simulate game situations.

3. 3D replay: a feature which allows the players to watch a replay of their actions. So let’s say, if you’re a goalie and you make ten saves out of fifteen shots, then you finish the drill, and you can go into the 3D replay mode, where you can see yourself making the saves. It’s a 3D simulation of your position, so you can see the skeleton of your body, your equipment, your legs, hands, and you can walk around yourself, and see the puck in slow motion; see where the glove was, and see the shot from the puck’s point of view!

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