Virtual reality has made substantial strides in gaming and entertainment, but there's another area where the technology could also prove useful: sports training. Kansas City-based EON Sports VR has been working on interactive simulators for football and, now, it's tackling baseball. Its latest, Project OPS, uses custom software and a smartphone-powered SIDEKIQ VR headset to train batters on strike zone awareness and pitch recognition through real-time, 360-degree video challenges. And to give this a sense of credibility, the startup recruited Jason Giambi, a 20-year MLB veteran with an American League MVP title, two Silver Slugger Awards and five All-Star badges under his belt.
Aside from being the person to guide you in every batting lesson you take with Project OPS, Giambi, who retired from Major League Baseball in 2014, helped EON Sports VR shape its software by using his expertise to ensure these challenges were as close to real-life as possible. Not only did he test them himself, but Giambi worked with the developers to provide an accurate perspective, from a hitter's standpoint, of a pitcher's positioning and movement before, during and after the delivery of the ball.
Even though he says Project OPS is geared toward amateur and recreational players, Giambi believes VR-based training could also be useful for pros. "We've already talked to a lot of professional teams and they're really, really interested because we can recreate whoever's on the mound," he says. "Whenever we would have scouting reports, you would obviously get a piece of paper... 'This is what he [the pitcher] throws,' and then you received video, but all this video was really from behind them... You really don't get that face-on-face view, where you're looking at him and he's looking at you."
Jason Giambi during his time with the New York Yankees.
EON Sports VR's software offers over 30 sessions in virtual reality, each intended to help players understand pitches (i.e., fastballs, sliders, curves and change-ups) they'd typically see thrown from the mound. The goal, ultimately, is for players to perfect their hitting skills, learn to recognize the strike zone and use that to their advantage on the field. As it stands, however, Project OPS can't give you any haptic feedback on your swing, like you'd get from a physical bat, since it relies on a Bluetooth controller to indicate what type of balls are being pitched during the VR simulation. While EON Sports VR claims that Project OPS can emulate exact human throwing motions, as well as ball trajectory, it remains to be seen if this solution can hold up against traditional training methods like a batting cage.
For EON Sports VR and Giambi, using virtually reality to teach baseball players how to hit certain pitches is only the beginning. "It's gonna grow from here, you know, next we're gonna try to develop a bat so you can actually take batting practice with it," says Giambi. "I believe that VR is still very much a mental training exercise. I don't think this takes the place of having to actually go out and sweat, work on mechanics, etcetera." The $160 Project OPS simulator won't be released until December 14th -- we haven't had a chance to try it ourselves -- but if it works as expected, it could be an affordable solution for baseball players who don't have access to expensive training machinery, or who can't make a trip to a nearby batting cage.
"I mean, the closest thing that I've ever really seen is called ProBatter [a physical pitching simulator]," says Giambi, "and it's like $70,000."