Baseball and Some Media Futures

This article was written by Rick Wilber

This article was published in the The National Pastime: The Future According to Baseball (2021)


I’m a science fiction writer who, quite literally, grew up in baseball. My father, Del Wilber, played for the Cardinals, Phillies, and Red Sox before working as a coach, scout, and minor league manager for many years. Dad was a classic baseball lifer and Mom was a baseball wife who carved out her own solid career in radio and public relations. So thinking about the game, the media, and the future is second nature to me.

The family was anchored in St. Louis, where I spent my summers reading juvenile science-fiction novels by the famous writers of the day and listening to Harry Caray and Jack Buck on KMOX radio as they called the Cardinals games. The Redbirds were not often on television in those days, but KMOX brought the games right into our living room and—in April, May, and September—right into my elementary and high school classrooms through those marvelous early transistor radios.

 

Del Wilber spent eight seasons in the big leagues with the Cardinals, Phillies, and Red Sox (AUTHOR'S COLLECTION)

Taffy Wilber interviewing Joe Namath (AUTHOR’S COLLECTION)

 

We went to the games often, of course—especially in the 1960s, when the Cardinals had some great years and Mom worked in the Cardinals’ front office and had box seats as a perk. But even there, those transistor radios brought Harry and Jack right into our ears as we watched Bob Gibson wind up to pitch or Lou Brock take a lead off first as he got ready to try for yet another stolen base.

Cardinals baseball was perfect for radio, with plenty of time for Harry and Jack to wax eloquent about the players and the situation on the field before Gibby would bring in that angry fastball or Lou would take off for second. Perhaps it is nostalgic of me, but often I still listen to my hometown team’s games that way, though now it’s the Tampa Bay Rays and I get the radio broadcast through my Kindle Fire’s At Bat app from MLB.com. I have my ear buds in as I’m reading a science fiction novel from one or another of the writers of the day—Kevin J. Anderson or Fran Wilde or E. Lily Yu or James Patrick Kelly—and I’m listening to the Rays broadcast as Andy Freed and Dave Wills wax eloquent about Tyler Glasnow and his occasional triple-digit fastball or Randy Arozarena’s amazing 2020 postseason hitting and can he keep it going this season? Much of that chatter goes by me as I focus on the story and then Freed tells me here’s the pitch, and Arozarena gets into that one and maybe he’ll stretch it to a triple.

I may be only half-listening—multi-tasking, as we all do so much these days—but in an instant the excitement in the voices of Freed and Wills clues me in. I’m fully engaged as the play takes place, and I am reminded again how good it is to listen to baseball via radio, no matter what device carries it to me.

A week later, I have a game on as I sit at my desk writing. The Rays are hosting the Yankees in what is certainly one of baseball’s most heated current rivalries. There’s some history of bad blood between these teams and Austin Meadows has just been hit by a pitch for the second time in the game. I’m expecting the dugouts to empty, but the umps intervene and for now the aggression remains mere angry chatter and the game goes on. Good, I’m thinking. Play ball. This isn’t hockey. Yet.

I hope we never lose that sense of being there in the booth with the announcer as the tension builds and the moment happens, time after time, inning after inning, game after game, season after season. But new technologies are on the cusp of bringing us even more immersive experiences.

The story I’m writing has a protagonist—an ex-pro basketball player—who’s taken up sportscasting and commentary, and who wears a device called a Sweep media system.1 The Sweep picks up all of his sensory input as he meets with one celebrity or another while interviewing them, takes a few swings at batting practice with the hitter that’s flirting with .400, or goes one-on-one with an All-Star shooting guard in the WNBA, or competes with a famous golfer in a hole-in-one contest. Viewers wearing a receiving unit sense what he sees and hears and smells and touches and tastes. They feel as if they’re sharing his experience fully, whether he’s shooting that three or shagging fly balls during batting practice or having a hot dog at Pink’s in Hollywood. They’re inside his head, sensing it all, being part of him.

I started writing these stories about the Sweep system twenty years ago, and I set them in the 2030s, which I thought was well into the future, when the technology might well be available. Now we’re only nine years away and it’s obvious to me that the tech I imagined is nearly here already. New kinds of immersive media are on the horizon, including one where you’ll be able to feel as if you are the shortstop turning that dazzling double play or the pitcher hitting the triple digits as he lets a high, hard one fly.

Though I love baseball on the radio—a technology that’s been around since the mid-1890s, when Guglielmo Marconi managed to send some signals from one aerial to another on his family’s estate in Italy—loving that old technology doesn’t mean I don’t embrace the new. I’m a simple user, for sure, not a developer; but my smartphone is chock-full of apps, including Ballpark—where the digital Rays tickets are stored that get my son and I into our socially-distanced Sunday matinee games (we’re both fully vaccinated, I should add). My wife and I were the first family in the neighborhood to cut the cable cord and start streaming all our television, and were the first, too, to bring Alexa into our house, where it not only answers our questions and keeps track of things generally, it also runs the three—count ’em, three—Roombas that zoom around keeping things clean. This fascination with new tech prompted me to apply to be a Google Glass Explorer back in 2013. Google said yes to my application and I spent $1500 on Google Glass, a technology that was ahead of its time and suffered from privacy problems, but is still around, as you’ll see. I try to stay current; my excuse is that it’s necessary research for my science fiction, both for background details and as a reminder of how fascinating (and worrisome) the future can be.

So I fancy myself a futurist and I’m willing to take an educated guess at how the media will present the game of baseball to us in the coming years, both at the ballpark and in the new ways to bring the game right into our living rooms. Let’s start with some technology that’s available now or will be very soon, and then look forward into the future, with technology that’s being talked about but isn’t here yet.

Virtual Reality (VR) is here right now and rapidly improving. This technology brings you into a three-dimensional artificial environment where you interact with that environment in any number of ways, competing in a next-generation video game, flying an airplane, soaring over the Great Wall of China or the Grand Canyon, attending a rock concert or, if you’re into baseball, taking your swings against a very realistic pitcher. VR typically requires a headset and controllers for your hands.

Baseball video games have been around for a long time. The best of them, like R.B.I. Baseball, coming from Major League Baseball’s Advanced Media group. Putting those games into a three-dimensional virtual word takes them to a new level of seeming verisimilitude. The technology is so realistic that there are training apps out there now that you can use to help your inner big-league ballplayer take on some serious pitching. One that some players are said to have used during the 2020 hiatus is the WIN Reality on the Oculus 2, where you choose your pitching level, hold the controller (and maybe a bat with it) and step up to the virtual plate.2

A new wrinkle in this virtual reality environment is MLB.com’s streaming service of live games, now presented in 3D. One of the most popular VR headsets is the self-contained Oculus Quest 2 and with that headset and your subscription to MLB.com you can stream out-of-market games through your Oculus, zooming around the field and into the dugout, seeing all the live action, even replaying favorite games back to the 2018 season.3 You get pitch-by-pitch data visualization and other stats in overlays when you want them, and 360-degree video highlights. All of this from the comfort of your couch at home. At the 2021 SABR Analytics Conference, developers from MLBAM hinted that by using software extrapolation, soon they hope to be able to offer angles on plays as if from a player’s perspective to Oculus and other VR platform users.4

This all makes great sense to me if you’re not able to attend games in person and if you already use the Oculus for gaming and other entertainment. Is the enhanced 3D imagery and the ability to manipulate your viewpoint worth wearing the bulky Oculus headset to watch major-league games that never include your home team (only out-of-market is available because of media rights deals) worth the $300 price tag? That’s up to you.

 

Del Wilber spent eight seasons in the big leagues with the Cardinals, Phillies, and Red Sox (AUTHOR'S COLLECTION)

Del Wilber spent eight seasons in the big leagues with the Cardinals, Phillies, and Red Sox (AUTHOR’S COLLECTION)

 

Augmented Reality Glasses, or Smart Glasses, are here now, too, though the best of them are pricey. Most pairs, which look very much like a regular pair of glasses, can present information to you about what you’re seeing. You choose whether to focus on the live action in front of you or the information. They are typically voice actuated: you “tell” the glasses what information you need. You can take pictures or videos, too, and share them immediately through email or through social media apps like Facebook or Instagram.

At their simplest, smart glasses are very much as if your smartphone became a pair of glasses. Will fans use them? Take a look around at the next game you’re able to attend and see how many people look at their smartphones during the game, checking their email, taking a quick picture and posting it on Facebook, looking up the stats on the next hitter or checking into some arcane fact about the action on the field. You can do all of that through smart glasses, even as you converse through texts or messages or, soon no doubt, by voice with others online, perhaps at the same game, sharing videos (“Hey, look at this, I got a great video of that Kiermaier catch at the wall!”).

Baseball has always been about conversations, right? You talk to those around you, high-fiving with the fans in the rows in front and behind you when a good thing happens, and moaning with them when your cleanup hitter takes a called third strike. With smart glasses you’re able to watch the action live and see chats from fans from all over the park, or all over the world, depending on your tech and settings. You can also easily connect to the radio broadcast of the game, so the announcers are in your ear while you’re glancing at the stats, perhaps, while watching the action on the field.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Major League Baseball Advanced Media is already working on its own kind of smart glasses, perhaps on a team by team basis. You could purchase preset glasses at the ballpark or download the app that would provide your existing smart glasses with the relevant information, like the pitch by pitch feed for your team’s home games. Additionally, these smart glasses take pictures and videos, so you could tell your glasses to take a video of the next pitch. Maybe you’ll capture the perfect bunt, or the home run, or the great catch in center field.

The downside for augmented-reality smart glasses is the price. The top of the line models, like the Microsoft HoloLens 2 or the Magic Leap One, cost thousands of dollars, and even the less expensive ones run $500 or more. Some of the glasses also use haptic technology in gloves you wear. With haptic technology, when your glasses show you a virtual object you can have the sensation of touching it via the gloves.

As an early adopter of Google Glass back in 2013, I found that early device clumsy to use but was fascinated by its potential. I shared it with my students, I wore it on long bike rides and to baseball games and walks on the beach. It worked. It took surprisingly good pictures and videos, but it was those pictures and videos that were problematic for people. If you were wearing Google Glass all you had to do was blink and the device took a picture. This felt intrusive, for sure, since those around you never knew when you were taking their picture. That privacy concern became a major knock on Google Glass, and a deserved one.

Google Glass is still around, as Glass Enterprise Edition 2, and still expensive, at more than $1000. The Enterprise Edition 2 is aimed at industrial and other professional training, allowing management and employees to learn dangerous jobs in a safe environment.

Immersive reality—in the way I’m using it here for purposes of predicting how the media may work with baseball in five or ten years—may be some variation on the fictional future I’ve predicted in my novels and stories. My fictional Sweep system can have, let’s say, a baseball star who is willing to be connected very directly to his fans, transmit his sensory input to those fans. They’ll feel the wind on his face as he’s racing toward third for a triple. They’ll not only see the third baseman put his glove up waiting for the ball, they’ll feel the dirt on their faces as our player slides headfirst, touches the bag, and a half-second later, feel the tag on their shoulder. Safe.

Players, coaches, and managers have already taken the first step in this direction when they’ve agreed to be miked up during games, which happens now with some frequency. Once mostly done as a Fox or ESPN game-of-the-week gimmick, hot mikes on players have become a staple of MLB’s own YouTube channel.5 All the fans get now is the player’s audio and some ambient noise, but what if the player were also wearing smart contact lenses that could capture what he was seeing and transmit it to the fans?

Smart contact lenses are already available in their early stages of development for health and vision purposes. They show promise, in the years to come, to be able to do almost everything that smart glasses do, including heads-up displays of information. An article published online by The American Academy of Ophthalmology predicts that, in the years to come, smart contacts will have the same visual displays as smart glasses.6

Will our miked and lensed player wear these tools only during a game, or might he build a large fanbase by wearing them at home, or when he’s out for dinner, or at an awards ceremony, or with his wife, playing in the front yard with their children? And will he consent to having haptic connections for touch, too, when such connections are possible? And for taste? And for smell? I’m guessing yes. Many ballplayers are already active on Twitter and other social-media platforms; they seem to enjoy the celebrity. Can Sweep media be far behind? I suspect not.

For now, I’m waiting for the price to drop on those smart glasses, so I can see the stats and watch the live action and, just like the good old days, listen to the radio broadcast as my team, the Tampa Bay Rays, try to earn their way back to the World Series. 

RICK WILBER’s new science-fiction novel, Alien Day (Tor, 2021), features a near-future journalist who uses a Sweep media system for his reporting, where his audience becomes one with the journalist as he works. Wilber has published a half-dozen novels and short-story collections and some sixty short stories in major markets, including the award-winning “Something Real,” in 2012, that features a fictional version of famous ballplayer and spy, Moe Berg. He is a visiting professor in the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at Western Colorado University and he lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. His website is www.rickwilber.net.

 

Notes

1. In my long-running S’hudonni Empire series of stories and novels. The most recent, Alien Day, was published by Tor/Macmillan in June 2021.

2. Information page for Win Reality baseball VR training program, https://winreality.com/baseball.

3. “MLB VR,” Specs page for the MLB VR feed for Oculus Quest VR devices, https://www.oculus.com/experiences/quest/2873640696088444.

4. Graham Goldbeck, Marc Squire, Sid Sethupathi, “MLB Statcast Player Pose Tracking and Visualization,” Presented at SABR Analytics Conference, March 14, 2021.

5. In 2020 MLB’s Youtube channel introduced a recurring video series entitled “Mic’d Up,” and in 2021 a series of videos entitled “Play Loud,” featuring mic’d up players on both benches in a game.

6. Reena Mukamal, “High-Tech Contact Lenses That Go Beyond Correcting Vision.” February 5, 2020, American Academy of Ophthamology website, https://www.aao.org/eye-health/tips-prevention/smart-contact-lens-tech-beyond-vision-correction.

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