America's favorite pastime has suddenly become easier to experience virtually with the launch of two innovative, high-tech Major League Baseball viewing options. Perhaps as newsworthy is how players in different parts of the world are already taking advantage of VR to improve their play.
Fans control their game viewing experience
Recently, baseball fans were delivered their first live-streaming "game of the week" in virtual reality. As part of a three-year agreement between MLB and Intel, viewers wearing VR headsets can get close to the field, so to speak, and select the perspective they want watch the game from, reports USA Today.
Alternatively, they may elect to see each play from a different angle, as they’re able to toggle between up to four camera angles to be offered in real time at each ballpark.
Another way to view major league baseball using VR headsets was launched on June 1. While not true virtual reality, the AtBat VR app transposes a graphic depiction of each pitch on the game being watched.
Fans, placed behind home plate, can see the speed and type of pitch as well as which parts of the strike zone are strong or weak for each batter.
Professional players gear up with VR
Virtual reality isn’t just for spectators. Last season’s trials of the VR coaching system by NTT Data convinced the Rakuten Eagles, a Japanese professional baseball team, to adopt the system for their 2017 season.
"The head-mounted display gives players the advantage of being able to practice receiving a variety of pitches," said Rakuten Eagles player Toshiaki Imae. "This gives them more confidence, and the readiness to face any game."
In the U.S., MLB players and teams started integrating it in training last season. The first team was the Tampa Bay Rays which used VR to prepare players for the types of pitches they’d face from their opponents, revealed Fortune.
VR opens new options for young baseball and softball players
Young players are also beginning to reap the benefits of virtual reality in practice. Unlike professional players who have the luxury of traveling to warmer climates for spring training, teams located in cold climates face the challenge of how to keep training indoors when the weather is inclement. Virtual reality gives coaches an option that doesn’t require a field or a large space.
Over the past year, softball and baseball clubs in the Netherlands have begun using an immersive VR tool called SportsImproVR Baseball/Softball, which includes exercises for hitting, pitching, fielding and reaction to work on technique, reaction speed, and game-awareness.
"Once the players put on the VR headset they find themselves on a baseball field and can select the exercise they want to do," shared product developer Joost Bosschert in an interview.
Its users, mainly girls and boys between 11-18 years of age, get direct visual feedback so they immediately see what they’re doing and how they can improve. Unlike video analysis that only can give feedback from a certain angle fully, VR’s immersive 3-D environment allows players to do things like actually walk around their batting swing trail to examine it from various angles, explains Bosschert.
Live and virtual reality practice have their distinct pros and cons — with controllability being one of VR’s greatest advantages.
Coaches can manipulate reality to improve player performance in a variety of skill areas. Results can be measured and logged, so a coach can chart progress and increment the level of a drill when the player is ready.
In batting practice, along with showing the trail of the ball or the bat, a coach may elect to make the ball disappear for a short time after the pitch, forcing the player to make a late decision on whether or not to hit the ball. Similarly, a pitch can be thrown 100 times with exactly the same speed to the exact same spot, something that could never happen with a coach or even a machine pitching.
Coaches use VR to increase players’ game awareness
The main improvement reported for the players since VR was introduced is increased awareness of what they’re doing. If a young batter is dropping her hands during the swing she can correct it right away on the next swing.
Coaching often build player awareness using visualization cues, like 'Imagine you're standing on a big clock where 12 is the direction in which you'll be throwing. “In VR you will actually be standing on that big clock on the ground,” says Bosschert. “So coaches can refer to that at a later moment, 'Remember when we did VR and you were standing on that clock?'”
Karen Marr, a pitching coach for the Dutch national softball team, related her experience using VR as an instructor for approximately 70 girls at the Brabant Bandits Softball School.
"Working with youth pitchers who had very little if any experience of softball pitching in the winter, the Brabant Bandits pitchers were given the opportunity to work with the VR system. SportsImproVR designed a virtual bicycle wheel so that the pitchers could see their pitching arm trace the line of the wheel towards home plate. The pitchers really enjoyed this and we noticed significant improvement straight away with the athletes."
A concern parents may have about VR is that it involves having two screens at less than 10 cm from the eyes. Fortunately, Bosschert hasn’t heard of players affected by eye-strain or headaches due to using VR.
Nonetheless, given the newness of the technology and lack of scientific studies on about how it impacts young players' eyes, he advises coaches to exercise caution and use VR as one station in their practice, so that players use it only for a few minutes then move on.
Not surprisingly, young players find this new way of practicing motivating. While a few were initially reluctant to try the exercises because they felt removed from the real world, the majority were really excited to try VR.
“At first, they saw it as a game, for example in the introductory batting practice drill wanting to speed up the ball to 105 mph and try to hit it, because that's how fast [Yankees pitcher Aroldis] Chapman throws,” comments Bosschert.
Whether VR allows baseball fanatics to feel like they’re on the field without leaving home or helps developing players analyze their swing, this burgeoning technology seems to be rapidly earning its position on the lineup.