Augmented Reality and the Spectator Sport

We are already accustomed to seeing unreal sights in our sports. But what about seeing tracers for free throws and drive charts on the gridiron when we are at the stadium?

When the yellow line appears on the first down line, we don’t hide behind our couches in caveman fear, nor do we dive under the bed when car names and driver photos appear above the machines zipping around the Daytona Speedway. And baseball fans have embraced the new MLB Statcast, which debuted during the 2014 MLB All-Star break and has shined in the 2014 MLB postseason. It essentially quantifies every movement on a baseball field and then visualizes the data for viewers at home:

But Google’s recent acquisition of startup Magic Leap has me pondering the next integration of the real and non-real sports experience. Here’s a quick primer on Magic Leap and why it’s important:

Basically, it is a company founded by a former Electronic Arts guy, and they are working on a technology — when they’re not busy making the weirdest TED talk ever — that should be able to render realistic graphics in real time via a headset component. Essentially, it can overlay, let’s say, the image of a tiny elephant in your hands (when you’re wearing the headset, naturally).

But the elephant won’t just have textured skin and realistic movements — the hallmarks of good animation. It will also adapt to the lighting and obstructions of the surrounding area — necessities of excellent animation. These features are incredibly special. They are what separates the yellow first down line in NFL broadcasts from the score graphic, which indiscriminately covers the field and players alike.

Imagine, then, an augmentation for the coaches; a headset that not only communicates with the coaches upstairs, but also has a visor that shows the first down line on the field and names all the opponent’s personnel by position and experience. What if Joe Maddon’s glasses also showed the consistency of his pitchers’ release points and animated the visual path of a fly ball and reported the ball’s distance and expected landing position. How easy would challenge decisions be then?

Imagine the more potent user experience. Watching Peyton Manning Jr. sling touchdowns with live data (ball speed, time in the air, ball path) augmenting your viewing experience. Suddenly, attending a live game makes us the curators of our own broadcast. (And there could be a democratization of broadcasting too, if companies start streaming viewers’ perspectives, much like a Twitch for stadium-goers.)

The MLB even used a home run prediction algorithm to anticipate certains dingers during the 2014 MLB Home Run Derby.
The MLB even used a home run prediction algorithm to anticipate certains dingers during the 2014 MLB Home Run Derby live television broadcast.

This is, of course, to say nothing of the possibility of heads-up-displays in player’s visors and glasses — revolutionary possibilities that face greater rules- and fairness-based obstacles than technological hurdles.

My grandfather frequently tells this story of how, when working as in aeronautics in the 1960s, he heard about a research project in California where he worked. It may have been a government or university research project — I should remember, given how many times I’ve heard this story — that had developed the ability to view 3D films without the use of 3D goggles or visors. My grandfather was so taken by the project that he contacted one of his favorite writers, Aldous Huxley, who was also in California at the time. Huxley said the device sounded fascinating and he looked forward to seeing it, but Huxley had to first visit England and go and die. So he died a few days later — before he had a chance to see it.

I don’t know what came of that technology — whether it ended up being more ambitious than it could handle, whether it is being manifest in technology already present, whether it was never as good as advertised, I don’t know. But if Magic Leap can produce at the level of their promise, then a lot can and will change in the universe of sports consumption.

Image credit: Mahanga

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8 years ago

You could also give them to home plate umpires and let them make ball/strike calls based on pitchF/X. Might encounter some resistance but it would be a middle ground to just automating it all together.