This Yogi Berra avatar will be unveiled to the public at the Baseball Winter Meetings in Las Vegas. Photo credit: CHOPS Live AnimationCHOPS
Yogi Berra is coming to the Baseball Winter Meetings!
Not the real Yogi, who died in 2015, but the digital version – an avatar capable of having a real-time conversation with people who stop to marvel at the 21st century technology.
The concept blends elements of The Wizard of Oz and Pride of the Yankees.
Created by Nevada-based entrepreneur Gary Jesch, Virtual Yogi will make his world debut during the four-day Las Vegas convention that will bring 5,000 people involved with professional baseball from Dec. 9-13.
Jesch heads a Carson City firm called CHOPS Live Animation, which developed some two-dozen avatars in as many years before beginning work on Virtual Yogi in September.
“We’re a small company with a big idea,” said Jesch in an exclusive forbes.com interview. “We’re going to try and honor Yogi and his values. We want to stick with things he believed in like sportsmanship, teamwork, and racial and gender equality. Yogi was a humble guy with old-fashioned values. That’s what America loves about him.”
Not to mention the legacy of twisted syntax known as Yogi-isms. The avatar knows them all.
“There’s a lot of material out there and it’s easy to find,” Jesch said. “I found a document with more than 50 of them on there. We know his history as a Yankee and what he did afterward, including appearances at spring training and interactions with people like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Casey Stengel, and even George Steinbrenner.”
Permission to use Yogi’s name, number, and likeness, plus photographs that belong to the Berra family, was arranged through special licensing arrangements with Steiner Sports. The Yankees logo does not appear with the avatar because it belongs to the team and Major League Baseball, though that will most likely change in the near future, Jesch said.
Nevada entrepreneur Gary Jesch is the man behind the curtain for the Yogi Berra avatar. Photo credit: CHOPS Live AnimationCHOPS
“Being able to get him ready in time for the winter meetings is fantastic,” said Jesch, who will play the “wizard behind the curtain” while the avatar is active during the large trade show that accompanies the convention. “We're looking forward to meeting a lot of people there.”
At the convention, based in the Mandalay Bay Resort, Virtual Yogi will appear on a round video screen shaped like a baseball.
The project was conceived in late summer, when Jesch and New York sports publicist Ira Silverman were brain-storming about new ideas.
“Ira said he could make a connection for me at the Baseball Hall of Fame but asked what I would do with it,” Jesch recalled. “It just popped into my head right then and there that I would do a virtual Yogi Berra. We both had a good laugh but the more we talked, it started making more and more sense. Ira was able to connect me with Ed Schauder at Steiner (now a partner at the Phillips Nizer law firm) and it’s been a positive experience ever since. I’ve spoken with some very interesting people who have Yogi connections and memories.”
The Hillerich & Bradsby Company allowed Jesch to add a 3-D version of a Louisville Slugger bat complete with the company’s logo and a very visible No. 8, Berra’s uniform number, on the knob.
The Yogi avatar is equipped with a Louisville Slugger with his number on the knob. Photo credit: CHOPS Live AnimationCHOPS
Jesch said it took six weeks to create the avatar from start to finish. He had the help of three artists, including an accomplished political cartoonist who goes by the name of Donkey Hotey. Other talents essential to the project were 3-D modeler Issac Oster of Austin, TX and Tom Knight, a 3-D computer artist who spent two hours every day working remotely with Jesch from his base in Southern California. Together, the team designed Virtual Yogi’s head and facial features from Donkey Hotey’s caricatures.
Just a week ago, Jesch found another creative talent in Carol Holland Lifshitz, a professional copywriter who once wrote commercials for Yoo Hoo Chocolate Drink. Berra did numerous ads for the drink and was actually a vice president of the manufacturer.
Jesch seems an unlikely choice to create a high-tech avatar. After earning a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Nevada at Reno, he found himself intrigued by the potential of computer technology long before most people had personal computers.
“Broadcast journalism was actually the foundation for my work in helping speakers and presenters,” he said. “In those days, presentations were done with slides. Before the advent of Power Point, slides made out of film were presented in trays. I realized that presenters really needed to have something to catch the attention of their audiences in a special way – something emotional. And it struck me that these avatars – which we call vactors – would work well. I thought presenters would benefit from that and I would benefit from it too.”
Jesch went to his first virtual reality trade show in 1993, saw some ideas that emanated from Hollywood, and followed up with a Los Angeles company called Sim Graphics. It was using what Hollywood called a “waldo” to get the right facial expressions.
“It’s basically a hockey helmet with sensors, like you would find in model airplane remote controls,” he said. “There’s one end attached to the helmet and another end glued onto my face to make the virtual character’s facial expressions change in real time. When I talk, it lip-syncs so that the lips of the virtual image move in conjunction with my lips.”
The CHOPS Live Animation team took six weeks to develop the Yogi Berra avatar. Photo credit: CHOPS Live AnimationCHOPS
His first character, a virtual Mark Twain, cost $30,000 – for building, doing the 3-D animation, hooking it up, and usng the software. Jesch introduced it at a 1994 Apple MacWorld conference in San Francisco but had to bring in the massive “Reality Engine” SGI computer with a forklift.
Never a hobby, creating avatars has always been a serious business endeavor for Jesch. He’s come a long way from the days when he introduced 3-D computer graphics to Nevada advertising agencies.
He got a big boost from a meeting with a Northern California company called Motion Analysis Corporation. “They were pioneers in vactors also,” he said, “doing things like analyzing baseball and golf swings and analyzing them to improve individual players or look at it from a medical perspective. One of the devices they developed was a face-tracker. They didn’t know what to do with it but I did.”
With the help of Steve Tice, a friend who developed Geppetto software, software, Jesch built a custom PC-based computer system in heavy-duty road boxes suitable for air cargo. “I shlepped that hardware all around the world,” he said. “I would sit in my booth and put silver dots on my face, cheeks, and around my eyes and mouth. I wore a helmet with a camera that would look back at my face and track how those markers were moving and then send the information to the animation software in real time. That was the predecessor to what we have now.”
CHOPS gets $15,000-$20,000 to produce a three-day trade show experience. “When we work for clients, we bring a lot of value to their exhibits that they might not be able to get otherwise,” Jesch said. “We help them by creating unforgettable first-time experiences so they see a better return on investment. With Yogi as our first virtual celebrity, we’re raising the bar in terms of what an avatar has been able to do in the past.”
Jesch plans to use his technology to create digital mascots for sports teams. “We can recreate their mascots in digital form, allowing them to appear on big screens, in social media, on smartphones, and in ballpark kiosks.” he said. “We can even give them a voice. It’s high time we heard mascots speak.”
Former major-leaguer Dale Berra, one of Yogi’s three sons, hasn’t yet seen the avatar of his famous dad perform in person but has been working closely with Jesch, approving the artwork at each stage of the avatar’s development. “Gary is respectful, his intent is excellent, and he will do nothing to embarrass my dad,” Berra said. “We’re glad we took this chance (to work with him).”
A Yogi Berra fan takes a photograph as other watches during a public memorial service at the the Yogi Berra Museum for the New York Yankees Hall of Fame catcher on Oct. 4, 2015 in Little Falls, NJ. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
The Berra family is still involved in the Yogi Berra Museum, on the campus of Montclair State University in Little Falls, NJ. Tentative plans call for Virual Yogi to make its East Coast debut there next spring.
Dale Berra also said he’d like to see it on the big scoreboard at Yankee Stadium, at the Baseball Hall of Fame, and at business meetings and conventions.
“We think it can be a great message even in the museum,” he added. “If we show the avatar and he’s talking to the kids directly about gender equality, fair play, and sportsmanship, it would be a great thing.”
Berra’s message will also be promoted next May through a book called My Dad Yogi. According to its author, Dale Berra, “There have been so many biographies written about Dad but they’re pretty much the same book rewritten 15 different times, all with the same content.There’s never been one about his relationship with the family. When I made some bad choices and had to deal with them, he remained a supportive father the whole time. He never gave a thought to ‘What’s happening to my name?’ He pretty much saved my life without thinking about himself once.”
Asked about the avatar, Dale said, “We’re looking forward to it representing Dad in a very positive way.”