On the indoor training pitch at the Oriam facility, I effortlessly keep pace with the stars of Scottish rugby.
Captain Chris Hogg throws a pass across my field of vision. I glance to my right ensure it’s been caught, getting a little bump in the back from one of my fellow players. Later in the session I feel the shove from Adam Hastings as he powers past me.
Except none of this is actually happening. I’m not even at Oriam, I’m about five miles away in a dressing room at Murrayfield and dressed vaguely like Batman villain Bane.
Those Scotland internationals didn’t know who I was until I put on the mask.
It’s a freezing, windy day in Edinburgh not unlike the conditions in which the recent Calcutta Cup match between Scotland and England was contested. The wind howls around the concrete exterior of Murrayfield, a marquee that would be used to sell beer on match days looks in danger of taking off.
This is not a day for a rugby training session, where some gargantuan lock with a neck wider than his head might send you sprawling to the muddy ground, your broken body slowly sinking into the ooze where it will be discovered years later, in several pieces, by puzzled archaeologists.
Thankfully, I have been assured that today’s session will be very much an indoor endeavour.
I’ve been invited to sample a training session by the magic of virtual reality, a world first experience developed by BT and Scottish rugby.
I look around the dressing room – exclusively for use of the Scotland team – and among the jerseys hanging on the wall is the black vest that brings to mind Tom Hardy’s character in The Dark Knight Rises.
I’m assured that this is not something cooked up in a Gotham lair but in fact a haptic suit, allowing the wearer to feel the impact as they experience the training session. Hopefully not in full force – some of those lads look quite big on the TV.
I put on the suit and am handed a VR headset. I strap it and am immediately plunged into darkness, while a pair of headphones cancel out any background noise.
Moments later I’m standing on an artificial pitch at Oriam, surrounded by international rugby players.
The only thing to break the illusion is a notice imploring me to look at it to start the training session.
I do, and suddenly I’m in the midst of the action. Over there is Ali Price, just to my right Huw Jones. There’s a tap on my right shoulder and I whirl round to see a coach indicating that it’s time to begin the session.
As Back To The Future Part II predicted, VR technology is now widely available. Many people will have experienced some form, usually a headset you can mount your phone to and and play games with a special app.
This isn’t like that. The first thing you notice is that you can turn 360 degrees and have something to look at, with almost no motion blur as you do it.
One minute I’m floating serenely above the pitch watching a cross kick drill, the next I’m running down the left wing and looking over my shoulder as the ball comes flying through the air. I fear I may have put my hands out to catch it.
On some level I’m aware that I’m standing in a dressing room, and that the people watching me probably think I look like an absolute d***. On the other I just want to keep looking around this virtual world, looking for some small flaw that will give the game away. I can’t find any, though I was rather distracted by all the pushing and shoving from my virtual team-mates.
After running a good variety of drills the session is over. Apparently my performance was good, because I’m getting pats on the shoulders from the Scotland stars. I hear a voice from behind me and get a slap between the shoulder blades. As I spin round I’m looking into the face of Gregor Townsend, who is congratulating us all for our efforts in today’s session.
The mask goes dark and suddenly I’m back in the dressing room, though not quite in the position I started. I note nervously that there’s a large claymore just inches from the back of my head. I’m also relieved not to have smashed the huge television Townsend presumably uses for tactical notes.
Being thrust back into a room filled with people who have just watched you flail around at nothing is slightly disconcerting, it must be said, although probably a fairly accurate representation of how I’d fare in an actual rugby training session.
At this point, reader, you’re probably wondering how much it would cost to have such a setup in your home? I asked and the answer is: “a lot”.
BT plans to open up the experience to members of the public, who will get to sample the VR training session as well as taking the Murrayfield tour.
The latter is worth it for Bill McLaren’s ‘big sheets’ alone, the impossibly intricate and detailed notes that the commentator made for every match.
The only downside to a tour which lets you stand pitchside, walk through the stands and sit in the coaches’ box is that it’s February in Scotland.
As my fingers thawed around a cup of tea in the players’ tunnel, I couldn’t help but wish I could have done the tour in VR too…
This content was originally published here.