There is a world in which baseball trading cards suddenly become video highlights, where fans like you hit majestic home runs in front of roaring sellout crowds, and where a kid can stand on a Major League pitcher's mound and dream of throwing there one day.
There is a TV ad that prompts you to point your camera at it between innings, because that ad for your average upcoming Bobblehead Night will now float the goodie in the air before you. There is a player racing to second with a double as his Statcast™ datastream and fixed-ID visual follows him, like in a Terminator movie scene.
Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are increasingly becoming baseball realities. Dreams are coming true, and practical applications are in development. Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) is continuing to leverage new technologies to push the envelope in building new fan experiences, just as it has done for the past two decades.
"I think the next big step for us, as all sports, is going to be virtual reality," Commissioner Rob Manfred says. "It's amazing." Consumer adoption is growing fast, so let's take a look at where VR and AR might be taking baseball fans next:
Home Run Derby VR (HRDVR) is one of the coolest uses of VR so far, as many fans loved the custom-built experience inside a special batting cage at All-Star FanFest in Miami this past July. Padres fans had a similar reaction at the end of the 2017 regular season to a custom-mapped Petco Park derby in San Diego, and one might expect a Nationals Park version for 2018 All-Star Week.
"Home Run Derby in VR gives fans from all corners of the world the priceless opportunity to step up to the plate at their favorite ballpark, hear and feel the roar of the crowd, and swing for the fences," says Jamie Leece, MLBAM's vice president, games. "It's a sensory experience that only VR can deliver and one that always leaves them wanting more, just one more at-bat."
Before taking a swing at this article, I headed into the Home Run Derby VR testing and development room inside MLBAM offices in Manhattan. Donning a headset, I gasped and did a full 360 around me, surveying the digital reproduction of Petco. There was the distinctive Western Metal building down the left-field line, and a big scoreboard showing 90 seconds to take my hacks. Fans stood around me, roaring. The pitcher looked in and fired.
I'm not saying Scott Boras rushed to sign me or Mike Petriello cranked out a column, but it was a barrage of realistic boom rockets, maxing out at 507 feet. There were lots of Statcast™ barrels. Since we have valuable computer equipment in that room, I didn't take a full swing, unlike the full range of motion unleashed by the Team USA youth players who swung with HRDVR in our Miami cage. Then I switched to that same Marlins Park theme, admiring the fish tank behind me and the home run sculpture in left-center. I hit eight out in those 90 seconds, feeling a little like Aaron Judge for the moment. Only Judge would have nailed any of the multiplier targets, which add more time to your countdown. I learned to go for those next time.
MLBAM had also rolled out a special version over the summer in London, with MLB Battlegrounds VR, a series of immersive experiences that mixed baseball, music and street food, culminating on July 4 at Hyde Park. Built in a 10-foot steel cage, with a 100W quadraphonic speaker system, that game was Europe's first Home Run Derby, and fans chose between Fenway Park or Dodger Stadium maps.
It featured former All-Stars Carlos Peña, Cliff Floyd and Shawn Green, plus England cricketers Jos Buttler and Alex Hales. With more than 16,000 people in the crowd and one million more watching live on Twitter, it was a nail-biting battle with drones actually following the flight of the balls. Expect more breakthrough uses of VR from MLB going forward.
"What's next" arrived for the 2017 season, when MLB.com At-bat VR made its public debut. It became the first complete live-game sports experience in Virtual Reality, which meant that not only could you watch real-time video (or any archived game back to 2015), you could do it in an immersive virtual experience.
"It's another improvement, an advancement, in what we regard to be the best app in sports," Manfred says. "It's something we think our fans will be excited about."
If you have a mobile phone that supports the Daydream VR app and an active MLB.TV account, then all you need is the Daydream View headset and you're good to go. Slide your Daydream-enabled phone into the headset, pick up the included remote control and get busy. Whatever you can get with MLB.TV on desktop or mobile, you can get with At-bat VR as well, but in an entirely new way.
Original VR content
Baseball fans are finding original VR content incorporated into the overall 24/7/365 baseball coverage at MLB.com. In fact, the site was nominated for a Sports Emmy for its VR productions of last year's postseason.
Consider Google Daydream VR: On The Verge. MLBAM and Google debuted the partnership's latest VR collaboration, an original video series that provides a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of young MLB stars around the game. Additional episodes featuring MLB's young stars have been released during the postseason.
Featured in those 15 player stories are Mookie Betts, Josh Bell, Mark Buehrle's retirement ceremony, Alex Bregman, Jonathan Schoop, Scooter Gennett, DJ LeMahieu, Robbie Ray, Chris Archer and Cody Bellinger, to name a few. VR video also includes a unique look at the Arizona Fall League. The two-year arrangement with Google calls for an additional 15 player stories in 2018.
MLBAM has also been working with Samsung to feature six player stories (Ichiro Suzuki, Andrew McCutchen, Seung-hwan Oh, Justin Smoak, Roberto Osuna and Francisco Lindor), six ballpark tours (Marlins Park, PNC, Busch, Rogers Centre, Safeco, Fenway), and a bunch of "Heat Moments," including the Braves' SunTrust home opener, Cleveland's ring ceremony, three events from 2017 All-Star Week in Miami, Hall of Fame Weekend and much of the postseason.
Augmented Reality (AR)
When Pokémon Go dominated pop culture in 2016, it was the first global example of how AR can change everything. MLB has many AR uses in development as this technology emerges, and it will further revolutionize our consumption of the best game on Earth.
For example, imagine pointing your mobile camera at a standard baseball card and then seeing that card brought to life as it becomes an actual video of that player. You'll be able to move the card around and the video will keep playing. Similarly, imagine aiming your camera at a sign around the ballpark, like a Darryl Strawberry banner outside the Citi Field gates, and seeing him brought to life with 1986 video. Or using AR as a wayfinding aid, getting exactly the concessions you want on the concourses.
Imagine all of the possibilities of Statcast™ integration, using the At-bat app. Data is tracked constantly, and you could be watching the game in the ballpark, holding up your device and seeing that batter's headshot following him around the bases, along with a data stream. If a runner on first has an 11-foot lead, and the catcher has an average pop time, you will know optimal running or throw-over situations, based on the up-to-the-second data.
"We have all this real-time data thanks to Statcast™, and it will augment the game you are seeing out on the field," says Chad Evans, MLBAM senior vice president, product development, mobile. "AR is going to bring new experiences to the fans, and baseball will be at the forefront. There are so many untapped possibilities of what this technology can do."