Category Archives: Virtual and Augmented Reality

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Villanova, MLB Team Eye Virtual Reality Training for Batters and Catchers

Imagine you’re at home plate, your bat lifted behind your shoulder. You eye the pitcher as he sets up, carefully paying attention to not just the sights that play into the timing of your swing, but the sounds, too.
Researchers at Villanova believe those audiovisual cues will set apart the next generation of players. And this spring, the Villanova Wildcat baseball team will begin using a new virtual reality training system designed by Dr. Mark Jupina, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the university. The VR system matches batters and catchers against some of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball, but it’s intended use stretches far beyond just a virtual batting machine.
The system, dubbed PITCHvr, can pull in data from the MLB pitch database. (Its name was inspired by the PITCHf/x system that was used through 2016, and has since been replaced by TrackMan.) Jupina has used this data to recreate the motions of a pitched ball, such as its path, velocity, orientation, and spin. From this perspective, PITCHvr is not unlike other VR pitching platforms that have come in the past, such as Diamond FX, a virtual reality player performance and scouting tool that uses recreated pitches and sports vision to give baseball players extra reps.
What sets PITCHvr apart, however, is the addition of audio tags that help to not only train eyes but also ears as batters, catchers, and umpires prepare for pitches in the real world. Jupina’s algorithm generates a unique audio signature for each virtual pitch. When this audio is played alongside the pitch, the sound can assist users’ eyes in tracking the motion of the baseball.

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As the Wildcats are preparing to use this system during their upcoming season, MLB teams are also becoming interested in the technology. At least one team so far has expressed a desire to use it for 2019 spring training, although Villanova declined to provide the name of the team since negotiations are ongoing.
Jupina, who played baseball through high school and coached for 11 years, leaned heavily for PITCHvr’s development on Wildcats head baseball coach Kevin Mulvey, a former standout pitcher for Villanova who reached the major leagues with the New York Mets, Minnesota Twins, and Arizona Diamondbacks.
While Jupina had the science and engineering background to build the complex algorithms that power PITCHvr, Mulvey offered the real-world experience of professional baseball and insight into how the system would best benefit his players.
To date the system has been primarily tested in Villanova’s room-sized virtual reality CAVE space, an 18-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep, and 7.5-foot high enclosure that provides immersive 3D experiences. But the system has also been adapted for the HTC Vive headset (the same headset that launched DiamondFX), which is the version that’ll be used in-season by the Wildcats and possibly by professional teams.
Whether stepping into the CAVE or donning a Vive headset, users are met with some of MLB’s top pitchers, including the Astros’ Justin Verlander, Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel, the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman, and the Indians’ Corey Kluber. Jupina even recreated Astros’ Lance McCullers’s nasty knuckle-curveball, which helped to deliver Houston an American League championship and World Series win in 2017.
(Courtesy of Villanova)
“I recreated the same exact pitch in this virtual enforcement and they matched up well,” said Jupina. “That gave me the confidence that this looked accurate and realistic and began working with [Villanova head coach] Kevin to verify things.”
With the infrastructure now in place, Jupina is eyeing a range of other use cases for his system. In the future, pitches generated by PITCHvr could be made even faster and nastier than pitches thrown to date, which would help to further hone users’ audio and visual tracking instincts and possibly translate to more hits from the plate.
Jupina also is planning PITCHvr adaptations for specific positions, such as for catchers, umpires, and batters. He projects these updates will be ready for use over the next half-year. From there, the school could be able to explore potential licensing opportunities as well.
“I can see applications of a catcher or an umpire and have talked to the MLB office in charge of umpire development,” he said. “We could come up with an app where a person would try to catch the ball and the system would detect when their hands closed on the ball.”
The next step (and something Villanova researchers and students are already working on) is to use additional sensors and imaging technology to provide analytics on the bat’s motion and swing, enabling players to obtain metrics such as launch angle, velocity of the batted ball and distance traveled.
“Current trackers aren’t really sufficient … you need to use other types of sensors,” said Jupina.
Future iterations of the technology might integrate neurofeedback to read a users’ focus and stress levels. Jupina has held discussions with Narbis, a company that uses EEG sensors to measure brain waves, and has worked with the Villanova psychology department to use measurements of muscle tension to get an idea of someone’s focus or concentration level.
A tightened jaw or wrinkled forehead might indicate a batter on edge, for example. Perhaps one day, that feedback might pause the system, forcing users to relax before continuing, and conditioning them over time to step up to the plate with a clearer, more-focused mind. A similar neurotechnology has been used by the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers.
According to Jupina, one MLB team has expressed interest in using that part of the technology along with inputted crowd noise and eye-tracking technology in its scouting process. While most professional-grade players might perform well at the plate or in batting cages during practice, their abilities might change when they’re in a high-pressure gameday situation.
“You throw them some practice pitching they’re going to crush that ball, so they’d rather see how they handle actual pitches and how well they’re tracking that ball with their eyes and what their state of mind is,” he said.
Further into the future, Jupina believes the technology could also be adapted into other sports that have fast-moving objects that have to be caught or hit, including tennis, hockey, and lacrosse.


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Steelers Digitally Augment Terrible Towel Through Mobile App

The Terrible Towel, a longtime symbol of Pittsburgh Steelers fandom that dates back to the 1970s, is being digitally augmented through a new AR feature being added to the Steelers official mobile app.
The rally towels originally date back to the Steelers run to victory in Super Bowl X. The “Terrible Towel Wall” is a display area located inside Heinz Field was added in 2012 and showcases the most memorable Terrible Towels from Steelers’ history. Using the new app, fans attending homes games or stadium tours can now point their smartphones towards the Terrible Towel Wall to view augmented reality-enabled videos and info galleries about the history of the iconic giveaway.

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“If you come to Heinz Field you are going to see something you can’t experience from your couch watching on TV,” said Nick Sero, corporate communications manager for Heinz Field, according to The Pittsburgh Business Times.

The app was developed by YinzCam, a mobile app and analytics developer based in Pittsburgh. Additional AR features in the app that can be activated at Heinz Field include selfie filters for special events like a fan’s birthday, anniversary, or first game. “The Steelers plan to continue developing their mobile app and its in-stadium uses, likely featuring additional AR technology in the near future,” a HeinzField.com press release stated.
“More and more teams are exploring the possibilities of augmented reality through their apps, whether to entertain and engage fans, or to provide them with unique utilities to enhance the game-day experience,” added Priya Narasimhan, CEO and founder of YinzCam, per The Pittsburgh Business Times.
SportTechie Takeaway
YinzCam has built augmented reality-backed mobile apps for other professional sports teams such as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kansas City Chiefs. The NBA bought equity in YinzCam back in 2015. While the Steelers are requiring fans to go to their home stadium to activate AR features, the Dallas Mavericks have taken a different approach by creating a mural of point guard Dennis Smith Jr. that comes to life for a virtual slam dunk behind a YMCA in downtown Dallas (developed by a collaboration with GrooveTech AR and the Spark AR Facebook platform).


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Mural of Mavericks’ Dennis Smith Jr. Comes to Life in Dallas

A giant mural of Dallas Mavericks point guard Dennis Smith Jr. was unveiled in the heart of downtown Dallas ahead of the team’s home opener on Oct. 20. Facebook is giving fans the opportunity to see the 68’ by 193’ mural come to life for a slam dunk through augmented reality.
Fans must install the Facebook mobile app to be able to view the AR experience. Facebook camera filters will transform the image of Smith Jr. on the wall of the Dallas YMCA building into motion video. The experience was built by creative technology studio Groove Jones and uses Facebook image recognition technology to activate when pointed at the giant mural.

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“We want our fans to be proud that we’re the first team to do something this big with augmented reality. We are grateful to Groove Jones who helped us bring this experience to Dallas,” said Jerome Elenez, CMO of the Dallas Mavericks, in a team press release.
Smith Jr. elevates for a slam dunk, then appears to land on his feet right in the YMCA parking lot.

The project was the result of a collaboration between GrooveTech AR and the Spark AR Facebook platform, with graphics provided by the Mavericks. The mural, which will remain active through December, is the largest AR installation ever integrated within Facebook’s platform.
“They had this great mural design of Dennis Smith Jr., that was based on some game footage. We loved the energy and action that was captured in the frame and we wanted to bring it to life,” said Dale Carman, Partner and ECD of Groove Jones, on the company’s website.
SportTechie Takeaway
Through augmented and virtual reality, the sports industry is exploring the next frontier of advertising to consumers in the digital age. This installation if one of the more creative ways a sports team has used AR to engage with fans. FOX also recently aired augmented reality ads for YouTube TV during its live broadcast of the World Series.


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FC Barcelona, Viber Create Augmented Reality Fan Experience

FC Barcelona fans can now experience what players go through as they walk through the Nou Camp’s tunnel to the field, or what being grilled by the assembled members of the media during a press conference feel like. Through the Spanish soccer club’s latest digital partnership with the Viber messaging app, fans can now create videos of themselves as if they were the latest signing for the storied team.
Rakuten-owned Viber will integrate AR filters built by Vivoom into the mobile app’s FC Barcelona chatbot with help from soccer media provider Dugout. As part of the deal, Dugout will also use its platform to offer fans behind the scenes content at Camp Nou.

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“Brands today are constantly seeking new ways of strengthening the relationship and engagement among their fans,” said Djamel Agaoua, CEO of Viber, in a press release. “This partnership is a perfect example of how brands can leverage technology to deepen their interactions with their audiences. With this powerful combination, we can deliver inspiring user experiences for businesses around the globe.”
Additional features in the Viber app will include allowing fans to sign a mock contract, receiving a welcome from Barcelona’s manager and players, and participating in a skills challenge. Viber has been Barcelona’s official communication channel since 2017, while Vivoom has previously worked with the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers to create similar fan-video experiences. The Dugout digital platform is part-owned by FC Barcelona.
“This ground-breaking partnership will allow FC Barcelona’s fans across the world unprecedented access to the club,” said Dugout president Matthew Baxter in the press release. “It will allow them to experience what it feels like to be the club’s next big signing and we are delighted to have devised the strategy behind this partnership and to have created some exclusive and unique content.”
SportTechie Takeaway
FC Barcelona is continuing to innovate ways to boost fan engagement. Considering the club broke the world-record for the most social media engagement by a sports team during January 2018, according to a Blinkfire Analytics study, that effort seems to be working. MLS club Los Angeles FC also recently added augmented-reality features to its mobile app, giving fans previously unseen vantages of its home stadium. However, the LAFC app focuses more on showing off the venue than fan engagement, whereas Barça instead is giving supporters a unique experience that only a small number of players ever get to experience in real life.


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New York City Marathon Builds Wheelchair-Accessible Interactive Video Game

The New York City Marathon will have a new videogame on display this weekend that will enable people, including those in wheelchairs, to race one another in place using a Dance Dance Revolution-like touchpad.
The interactive game, which will be set-up near the finish line in Manhattan’s Central Park, was created by NYC Marathon sponsor TCS, which is behind a number of new NYC Marathon app upgrades this year, including behind-the-scenes prediction software for race winners.
Called Marathon City, the game will match up two players at a time, who will be able to pick from a selection of avatars, including avatars in wheelchairs. They’ll race through a digital rendering of the final 200 meters of the NYC Marathon course in Central Park.

On the screen, runners will use controller pads at their feet and will run in place to propel their characters. This is similar to the way a gamer might have used the Nintendo Power Pad in the 1990’s to race avatars on the original Nintendo, or the way dancers might compete in arcades.
There’s also a mechanism for people in wheelchairs that acts as a sort-of bike trainer, allowing them to spin in place. TCS engineers adjusted the calibrations so that a person in a wheelchair will moves more slowly than they would in real life, allowing those on their feet to compete.

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Michelle Taylor, head of sports sponsorships at TCS, said the game will likely find its way to New York Road Runners’ youth programs as part of a broader effort to promote health and fitness. The wheelchair accessibility is also part of both organizations’ efforts to promote inclusiveness, especially since the marathon already has a wheelchair division.
“It’s really opened up a conversation about inclusion in gaming,” Taylor said. “We wanted it to be inclusive, so we created wheeler avatars, and we wanted to have a way for them to participate in the game in an authentic way.”

When TCS began developing Marathon City, it found few other games, especially active games, that accommodated people of different abilities. Though the game was tricky and expensive to build out, Taylor said TCS and the marathon believe it was well-worth the investment.
“From what we can tell, it’s one of the first games that have been adapted for wheelchair input,” she said. “We’re excited to test it out, to get some kids on it, and hopefully get some pro-athlete wheelers into the game and have fun with it.”


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