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Dayton Daily News (Ohio)

 

SAN FRANCISCO — Chad Evans points his iPad to the AT&T Park field, and suddenly photos of the visiting Colorado Rockies fielders pop up on his screen, each next to the image of the actual player.

When Evans taps on one of the pictures, defensive statistics of old and new vintage — such as errors, fielding percentage, catch probability and arm strength — appear underneath.

When one of the San Francisco Giants hits a ball, the screen shows a trail tracing its trajectory. Tapping the trail provides the drive's exit velocity, launch angle, distance and apex.

All this is happening in real time.

The high coolness quotient is undeniable.

You can't do this at the ballpark yet. Evans, senior VP of mobile product development for MLB Advanced Media, was using a tablet equipped with new augmented reality software that's still in the testing phase.

But fans might have access to all these features as early as next season, provided they have an Apple device.

Through a program designed by Apple known as ARKit, Major League Baseball plans to add augmented reality elements to its popular At Bat app sometime in the 2018 season. The app, which sells for $19.99, is opened an average of 8 million times a day during the season and ranks atop all U.S. sports apps in minutes consumed, according to comScore.

Interest might continue to rise if the technology lives up to the promise displayed during its first public unveiling at AT&T Park last week.

Evans and Greg Cain, VP of baseball data for MLBAM, demonstrated a functional prototype that will get tweaked between now and the release date, and it certainly caught the attention of baseball and tech writers alike.

ARKit blends the device's motion-tracking sensors to overlay virtual images on the screen, right alongside the real objects. Think Pokémon GO with a saber-metric bent.

Besides stats about the batter-pitcher matchups, users will be able to see a graphic indicating how big a lead a runner is taking off a base and in what instances he might be most successful stealing.

The app will also provide information on fielders' range and show the gaps in defensive alignments that might be fertile ground for hits.

"What are the game scenarios where augmented reality makes the experience more fun for the fan? We've identified some keys," Evans said, citing stats on a base-runner's speed, the time it takes a catcher to make a throw and the quickness of a pitcher's delivery in a steal situation as an example.

There's no lack of information available, with Statcast providing every nugget imaginable to the data-hungry fan. The game-analytics system, which was introduced in 2015 and has added terms such as exit velocity and launch angle to the baseball vernacular, captures the action at every major league ballpark and spits out countless reams of numbers.

Part of the trick when deploying the augmented reality upgrade will be deciding what to use and what to discard.

"The whole design of the mechanism was to continue to extend the digital data elements on there, so as we crack the nut of what to show and when to inform the fan, it's not hitting him over the head with data but actually providing some insight," Cain said. "We don't want to get in the way of the live action on the field. That's one of our key tenets."

Besides getting the word out through the media, last week's demonstration served as a trial for what works in a real game setting, where 40,000 fans might be sucking up every bit of WiFi available at the ballpark.

For one, Evans and Cain were displaying the technology on tablets, but they acknowledge most fans will use smartphones, and the difference in screen size might require adjustments. In addition, the integration is less than ideal for replay because it runs on real time; product engineers are still pondering how to address that. And at least initially, the AR enhancement will run only on Apple's iOS, requiring an iPhone 6S or above or an iPad Pro from 2015 on.

This is not a toy for every fan to play with, and plenty will prefer to watch the game through their own eyes and not bother with any added distractions. But for those who like to mix new technology with their ballpark experience, the arrival of augmented reality in baseball could be, if not a game-changer, at least a game-enhancer.

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September 26, 2017
 
 
 

 

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