KNOXVILLE — Joe Harrington knew he could replicate the trick.
Tennessee's veteran sports technology coordinator just needed some time.
Shortly after the Volunteers wrapped up spring practice in April, Harrington — the program's video guru for more than 20 years — and the coaching staff sampled a virtual reality service, a technology rising in popularity among college and NFL teams.
As Harrington watched the presentation from STriVR, a startup company introduced at Stanford in late 2014 and now used by Arkansas, Auburn, Clemson, Vanderbilt and others, one thought kept popping into his head.
"They did a really good job. It was a great demo," Harrington said in his office on Wednesday evening. "But in watching it, I started to see that all the things that they were selling were available just to buy. What they were selling, it wasn't any kind of proprietary stuff. After the demo was over, I was like, 'I think I can do this on my own.'
"For me, it was a bit like the feeling a magician would get watching another magician perform magic."
The magic is now available for Tennessee's quarterbacks to use as an enhanced way to watch film, review practices and prepare for games.
"With film study and studying the game, it's definitely changing a lot, just as technology changes," starter Josh Dobbs said. "This is definitely something that we use every day that helps us. I know me and the other quarterbacks are always in Joe's room and watching skelly (a 7-on-7 passing drill), watching team (periods). Anything that he films, we're in there watching.
"It's just great. If you miss something on the field, you're able to go back and look at where your eyes exactly were and what you were looking at. It puts you right back in that play and you're able to simulate it again. You're able to pick up on little things you might have missed on the field."
'On my own'
One of the leaders in his profession, Harrington makes it all sound so simple when talking about his new system, but the way he developed his version of virtual reality hardly was easy.
"(The coaches) are wanting to buy the STriVR," he recalled. "I was like, 'You've got to give me a chance to do it on my own. I can do this thing.' Coach (Butch Jones) was like, 'We really like this STriVR thing, but if it's something that you think you can do, have at it.' Off I go into this world, and I had no idea. I knew you could buy the stuff, but I had no idea how hard it would be to make it work."
With Harrington's creation, the Vols didn't have to pay for either one of the two main virtual reality services. STriVR takes live film from practices, while EON, used by Ole Miss, UCLA and others, uses video game graphics. Keeping the service in house means lower costs and greater flexibility for Tennessee.
Harrington understandably speaks proudly about what he created.
He quickly learned he was taking on his summer project alone, as none of his colleagues at other programs, resources for him in the past, were trying to develop their own version.
"I came to find out I was the first one to go it on my own," he said. "All the other guys bought the service — I can't ask them for help. All they did was write a check.
"There were easily 20 days I left (the office) and said, 'We're buying it,' because I can't make it work. You come back in and you'd have a new idea of something else to try."
Harrington's system starts with six GoPro video cameras mounted onto a single rig. The block, which looks like a Rubik's cube of the small, flat-front cameras, generates a 360-degree view. The six individual videos are later stitched together via software to create one seamless view.
Also needed is the "Cadillac of laptops," Harrington said, to handle the bulky files and produce the best video quality.
At practice, the block of cameras sits atop a tripod that stands stationary 7 yards behind the quarterback during team periods or 7-on-7 drills. The tripod is moved between plays and watched carefully by a student assistant, who has to be quick to move the rig if a pass-rushing defensive linemen or blitzing linebacker flies toward it during a play.
Harrington's creation allows Tennessee quarterbacks to re-watch team periods at live speed. With STriVR, periods are set up and run for the camera, and though the service provides more of a first-person view for quarterbacks, the camera is operated during a walk-through. The service shoots, edits and builds a video log for the team using it.
"You've really got to give credit to Butch, because I wasn't sure how it was going to go," Harrington said. "But he is so competitive that the whole time he's just egging me on: 'You won't do it. You won't do it. We're buying it.'
"When I saw the demo, it was so awesome that when I saw it, I was like, 'I don't want to buy that. I want to be able to do that. I don't want them to come in and tell me when they're going to do it. I want to be able to do it on my own.'"
Tennessee's virtual reality station sits in one corner of Harrington's spacious office, which features a long row of computers sitting atop waist-high desks without chairs, because there's no time for sitting when video from practices or games needs uploading, editing and preparing for coaches to have as soon as possible.
Harrington graciously let a Times Free Press reporter and Jason Yellin, Tennessee's media relations director, test his system. On go the Oculus goggles and the headphones, and out you go to a team period during a preseason practice.
Freshman quarterback Quinten Dormady stands directly in front of you, surveying the defense. Turn to the left, and you think you could take a couple of steps and tap Jones on his shoulder. To the right, the offensive coaches are barking out directions.
Before one play, Dormady looks to his left to see linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin creeping toward the line and dummying a blitz. He backs off, and Dormady recognizes he has man coverage underneath and two deep safeties. He deftly slides to his left in the pocket as defensive end Curt Maggitt bears down on him and hits Josh Smith on an out route.
A play or two later, the defense sends pressure and forces Dormady into a quick throw to a slanting receiver. The defensive back makes a great play to break up the pass, and the ball is deflected before being intercepted. You feel the camera move as the student assistant tries to keep it from being run over during the return.
Very quickly you gain an appreciation for how quickly quarterbacks must make decisions in a chaotic pocket. You also understand how valuable a tool virtual reality can be. When the season arrives, filming scout-team periods should help Dobbs and the others prep for opponents.
"It puts you in the exact vantage point you had before the play," Dobbs said. "If you missed a read or you made a good read, you're able to go back and see it, and it's also great just getting more (virtual) reps.
"I get my reps, then obviously we run different plays with the (second team), so I can go back and get those reps (virtually) and see different coverages, see different coverage rotations, get different keys. It's great for the freshmen coming to get more reps that they might not get in practice."
Tennessee's quarterbacks — freshman Sheriron Jones joins Dobbs and Dormady — will come in the day after practice, and one will wear the headset while the other two watch the computer screen to view what the other saw.
"The exchange and the coaching and instruction between the three of them is really interesting of how they see and pick up different things and mistakes that each other have made," Harrington said. "Everybody runs so fast, so quickly, it's hard to tell, for me, what's going on. But those guys can spot a mistake in an instant."
After a few plays, Harrington pulls up footage of a "circle of life" drill (a one-on-one contact exercise) from a practice earlier in the week, and two dueling Vols are so close you feel like reaching out and trying to slap one of them on the shoulder pads.
During the testing phase, Harrington had no live football to shoot, so he had to get creative to capture footage. He pulls up another file that transports you to the roof of Tennessee's football complex. While you admire the bird's-eye view of campus, the camera walks you to the edge of the roof.
Suddenly, as the camera is hung out over the ledge, you look down and there's nothing between you and the street five stories below.
Yes, it was a bit harrowing.
'On the cutting edge'
Harrington admits his system isn't perfect. He'd first like to move the whole station into the quarterbacks' meeting room. The videos currently run on a continuous loop, and he's hopeful he can develop something akin to the clicker coaches and players now use to pause and rewind film.
The Vols have flown a video drone high above practice a couple of times this month, and Harrington would love to stick the six-camera rig on it and let it hover behind the linebackers and safeties to give them a unique vantage point. Of course, it would have to be during a run period.
Harrington wants to do more with the system, and so do coaches.
"There's no finish line with Butch," Harrington said.
For now, he's just glad he can do his part to help the Vols prepare for the season.
"Anything Joe does doesn't surprise me," Coach Jones said. "He's always on the cutting edge. He takes great pride in his work and his details, and I know he did his due diligence. It's really a tribute to him.
"I knew that once Joe puts his mind to doing something, he'll do it, he'll get it done. Joe is very competitive, so I think he treated this as a competitive challenge. And he obviously succeeded with it."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.