VR tools gave Kiwi athletes competitive edge

Screenshot image taken from the VR training tools created by the University of Canterbury Human Interface Technology Lab (HIT Lab NZ) for Snow Sports NZ.

New Zealand Winter Olympic and Winter Paralympic athletes were given a performance advantage using virtual reality tools created by a team at the University of Canterbury (UC) to help them train for Beijing 2022.

The technology, produced by the University’s Human Interface Technology Lab (HIT Lab NZ) and funded by High Performance Sport NZ, allowed athletes to hone their skills and prepare themselves psychologically for the real-life challenges they faced on the slopes at the Paralympic Winter Games.

It includes a virtual reality (VR) experience, known as the Alpine Project, that recreates the downhill speed course in Beijing; a “park and pipe” start gate simulation that allows halfpipe, slopestyle and big air athletes to see, hear and feel what it’s like to move between the warm-up area and the start gate area; and a simulated drone flyover view of the slopestyle course that athletes can use to plan their run.

The VR technology initiatives were created for Snow Sports NZ by a team led by UC HIT Lab NZ Professor of Applied Immersive Games Stephan Lukosch.

He says the technology, which HIT Lab NZ game developer Ryan McKee and game designer Shunsuke Fukuden helped build, aims to improve “mental imagery” training so that athletes are more prepared to compete.

“It’s about being able to imagine how a course is going to look and learning how to manage that,” says Professor Lukosch.

“Evidence shows that providing a training experience that is as close as possible to reality can enhance performance. We’re really happy with the positive feedback we’ve had from the snow sports athletes who have been using our products.”

Screenshot image taken from the VR training tools created by the University of Canterbury Human Interface Technology Lab (HIT Lab NZ) for Snow Sports NZ. Image: Supplied.

Three Kiwi Para alpine skiers, Paralympians Adam Hall (MNZM) and Corey Peters and Para athlete Aaron Ewen, used the downhill course VR technology, and members of the New Zealand Winter Olympic team’s park and pipe athletes used the start gate simulation and slopestyle course flyover, including Olympic Gold Medal-winning snowboarder Zoi Sadowski-Synnott.

High Performance Sport New Zealand Performance and Technique Analyst Dr Cameron Ross, who supports Snow Sports New Zealand, says the HIT Lab’s work had undoubtedly given the team a competitive advantage ahead of tackling the Xiaohaituo Mountain Area, which has one of the steepest racetracks in the world.

“They’ve created something that we feel no other country had access to and it’s been particularly valuable considering the Covid-19 restrictions on travel. No-one was able to go to the location before the Games except for the Chinese team and after using our tools the athletes felt as though they’d already been there, so this kind of training is incredibly important.”

Snow Sports NZ Adaptive Snow Sports Manager Jane Stevens, who is New Zealand’s Chef de Mission for the Paralympic Winter Games, says the training tools had been hugely beneficial for all three Kiwi Para athletes.

“This is a very inventive way to get around the travel restrictions and psychologically it’s been a massive help. The HIT Lab has exceeded our expectations and the University has gone above and beyond with what they’ve done for us.

“The experience has really paid dividends in the confidence of the athletes going into Beijing and been a key factor in them believing in themselves. All of them have used this technology to the nth degree. Considering our build-up and all the things that have happened, this is the one thing that we keep coming back to and saying, ‘Listen, we’ve got this tool, back yourselves’. It’s been incredible.”

She says the team continued to use the VR technology while based in the United States in the lead-up to the Games.

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