Archive for September, 2015

SmartKage Helps Scouts, Teams Evaluate Players

SmartKage’s headquarters are in a remote office park, 36 miles and a couple dozen cows away from Boston. But in a batting cage inside, Kevin is warmed up and ready to audition before an audience of MLB scouts and college recruiters from across the country.

Kevin, a 14-year-old shortstop (whose name has been changed for this story), and his father are listening to SmartKage chief operating officer Larry Scannell describe the components of the infielder test. Scannell, a former Red Sox farmhand, runs through the sprinting, agility, throwing, and hitting portions of the test.

“It’s analogous to a physical SAT,” Scannell says. “And if you take it multiple times, just like the SAT, we combine your best scores in each area. It’s not about consistency, it’s about capability.

Once the explanation is over, a few taps on a touch screen start the automated measurement process. The system has been designed to be completely automated. Aside from tapping “next” on the touch screen, no human intervention is required, though Scannell adds the occasional explanatory detail or words of encouragement. And as Kevin takes his hacks against the pitching machine, Scannell and director of information technology Dennis Clemens starts talking about the collaboration with FungoMan that was required to making the pitching machine as consistent as possible.

“We changed out the legs and bolted the machine down,” Clemens said. “The side-to-side adjustment was removed, and we had the agitator adjusted so there were fewer jams.”

“And we swap the balls out every 30 days,” Scannell added. “We’re working with Rawlings and talking about the life of a baseball. And as a former facility owner myself, I mean, these are pearls! We would use these for an entire year, you know? Now …”

“Now the dog eats them,” CEO Corrine Vitolo said. “We take the premise of standardization very seriously.”

The fresh baseballs are more than just a way to give Merlin, a German Shepherd mix who was also on hand, new chew toys. Developing and running a standardized test requires SmartKage to constantly calibrate and maintain their equipment. It also means a significant effort to find the right kind of facilities to partner with, and Scannell said he spent five years evaluating prospective partners.

“I vetted these facilities out on location, years in business, member base and foot traffic, and then the size and the appearance,” he said. “But most importantly, are they going to bring in the business and support it?”

To date, SmartKage has reached agreements with 160 facilities across the country. They began their initial rollout earlier this year, and are currently up and running in about 20 facilities. The company owns the equipment and installs it in the facilities, who then advertise the product to their clients. The tests run around $150, and take around 30 minutes. Different tests exist for infielders, outfielders, catchers, and pitchers; the results are available to professional teams and college programs, with especially high marks forwarded directly to teams.

“We’re a filter and a pre-qualifier for teams,” Scannell said. “It’s about maximizing the time and productivity for scouts.”

Vitolo said her company also has more in-depth relationships with a number of MLB teams (though she refused to say which). These teams lease systems to gauge the fitness and health of their own players. Scannell said the teams also buy prepaid “scout cards” that area scouts give to amateur players they’d like more information on, and that professional players already in the organizations use in the offseason to track their workouts.

“And because we weigh them every single time, we’ll know if they come in overweight before they get into spring training,” Scannell said.

smartkage_sample

Sample speed and agility data from a SmartKage testing session (courtesy of SmartKage).

 

The batting cage where the test takes place looks a little unusual. Laser timers are stationed at regular intervals along the length of the cage to track the athlete during speed and agility tests (though these are removed, of course, before hitting begins). The area around home plate is slightly elevated: the platform contains pressure sensors to track things like how a hitter’s weight is distributed during the swing. And hanging from the ceiling are two cameras, evidence of an automated version of Sportvision’s PITCHf/x technology that tracks both incoming pitches and batted balls.

“What we’re doing is we’re bringing these technologies from the major league level, we’re trickling them down through the amateur and collegiate market,” Vitolo said.

Sportvision, of course, should be familiar to tech-savvy baseball fans; their PITCHf/x pitch tracking data have been publicly available since the system was first installed in 2007. And their HITf/x and FIELDf/x technologies have also been available to teams for several years. Soon after their founding, Vitolo said SmartKage began their partnership with Sportvision, ensuring that the same data sources front offices were using to evaluate their professional pitchers and hitters would also be available to judge prospective draftees.

“So when they’re making comparative analysis between players, it’s exact, it’s apples to apples,” Vitolo said. “[Sportvision is] the de facto standard in baseball, and we worked with them on adding metrics to their existing system.”

Even after only a few months, SmartKage is already finding interesting trends in their data. Scannell described how players, after years of counterclockwise baserunning, become almost universally faster going to their right than going to their left. And he also talked about how the technology helped find an injury from a pro pitcher’s plyometric pushup data.

“There was an abnormal kind of regression in one of the pitching shoulders,” Scannell said. “And it turned out that there was a slight tear, and it was enough to red flag an MRI.”

The team is busy completing its first 40 installations, and making plans to roll out to the other facilities they have agreements with. But look in the right places and you’ll see hints — like a Harvard football helmet perched on a filing cabinet — that the company is starting to expand their offerings.

“A lot of the facilities that Larry’s got under contract are multi-sport facilities,” Vitolo said. “So you’ll have a SmartKage baseball, and then you’ll have a SmartSports football.”

Just like the SmartKage, SmartSports Football will offer an automated evaluation tool — a “physical SAT” — to a sport known for its pre-draft scouting combine. But Scannell says the company will offer far more than the handful of metrics traditionally covered.

“We measure five times the amount of metrics as the NFL combine,” Scannell said. “We can do everything the NFL does plus another five times those metrics in addition.”

As more and more of the cages start to appear across the country, the technology that underpins them will improve. SmartKage already has plans to add even more data sources, from pressure sensors in the pitching mound to markerless biometrics to wearable sensor-based technologies. To an outside perspective, digging into a specific aspect of a player’s game from the all the information SmartKage makes available may seem like trying to drink from a fire hose. But Vitolo says her company is ready to adapt to any improvements in technology — and still meet teams’ growing demand for performance and biometric data.

“Leap and the net appears,” Vitolo said. “You have the technology, you’ve got the capacity, and all of a sudden the applications present themselves.”


An Update on Drones in Sports

Drones racing each other at breakneck speeds through an abandoned industrial complex, controlled through VR goggles that broadcast a first-person view simultaneously to the operators and fans alike.

This may seem futuristic, but it was actually one of the most imminent ideas recently discussed in a special panel dedicated to “Drones In Sports”. At last week’s On Deck Sports and Technology Conference, three drone sport experts came together to talk about the potential–and the potential pitfalls–that drones may provide for the future of sports technology.

As one panelist put it, drones in sports are currently “kind of a Wild West opportunity”, and Matt Higgins, CEO of RSE Ventures and vice-chairman of the Miami Dolphins, kicked the panel off with the example of the Drone Racing League. Earlier this year, the DRL started informally as groups of hobbyists flying drones through parking garages and abandoned buildings, but plans are in the works to turn it into a full-fledged sport, pitting sponsored teams of self-taught drone specialists against ex-military UAV pilots.

The DRL held their first two test flights earlier this year in the New York metro area, and plans to release their first official video “in the next few weeks.” When Higgins (an investor in the DRL) was asked how to make this a spectator sport, though, he responded candidly, “I have no clue.” He expects that streaming services like Twitch and Meerkat will be critical in building fan engagement with drone racing — and there certainly aren’t a lack of ideas to spice the sport up, as Bradley Woodrum outlined earlier this year.

Companies are also thinking about how drones can be used to improve the experience for players and fans in more traditional sports. In the eyes of the panelists, the “low-hanging fruit” was using drones to provide new angles for gameplay and practice, but the Amazon “drone-delivery” model was also a clear influence. The possibilities bantered about by the panel seemed limitless. Dispatching drones on golf courses for tee-side food delivery, handing out tickets with drones during games, the drone t-shirt cannon…

…wait a second, “the drone t-shirt cannon”?

It’s an undeniably cool idea, but taking a few seconds to visualize an unmanned aerial vehicle launching anything at fans may remind you that drones still face a number of psychological (and legal) obstacles. Eben Novy-Williams (a reporter for Bloomberg and the panel’s moderator) noted, as one example, that he was at a recent triathlon where a drone filming at the finish line elicited divided reactions–half the audience loved it, but the other half was clearly uncomfortable.

Chris Proudlove (an aerospace insurance expert with Global Aerospace) agreed that “we’re not quite there” when it comes to drones flying over crowds and that we need to “build a public sense that drones will be operated safely”, but that at the same time we don’t want to overstate the risk. The top concern of Proudlove’s clients when discussing drones was “invasion of privacy,” but he predicted this would be “moot” in less than 10 years. We’ve already become accustomed to ubiquitous smartphones that record video; from a certain perspective, drones aren’t terribly novel, just an extension of technology. The rest of the panel was even more bullish about the long-term prospects of us welcoming our new drone overlords.

But there’s still a lot to be done to make drones seem — and be — safer. Chris described geofencing technology to keep drones in and out of certain locations, such as ‘within the stadium, but at least 20 meters from the stands’, and better use of parachutes and other physical features. (Many of us probably remember the recent drone crash during the 2015 tennis U.S. Open, but the panelists were also well-aware of the 1979 mishap where a lawnmower-shaped model plane killed a fan during halftime at a Jets-Patriots game.) Chris also suggested that regulations distinguishing ‘micro-drones’ (of less than 2 pounds) and ‘the big ones’ could make drone safety easier.

In fact, the panel generally agreed that regulatory issues were the primary roadblock currently facing drones in sports. Right now, commercial use of drones (in the US) is illegal except when exemptions are provided by the FAA, and this is expected to remain the status quo until the FAA issues a full ruling on drones sometime in 2017. Until then, companies will need to build their usage of drones on a case-by-case basis. (Late last week, for example, the news broke that the FAA had allowed the NFL an exemption for drone usage — but only in empty stadiums.)

In short, it looks like we haven’t yet reached a drone-filled future of sport, but that day is likely drawing nigh. When Eben asked the panel for a bold “five-year prediction,” panelist Jon Ollwerther suggested that by 2020, we’d see drones being used in “every major American sport”– even down to the high school level.


On Ad-Driven Revenue and Tools of the Sports Fan

Apple’s release of iOS 9 and its ability to allow content blocking on Safari has once again sparked conversation about blocking online advertising. Every now and again, the topic of ad blocker use crops up in the tech news circles. There are arguments made, grandiose solutions proposed, and villains identified. It’s the sites’ fault for allowing such terrible ads. It’s the ad networks’ fault for presenting such hideous and annoying material. It’s Google’s fault, it’s Apple’s fault, it’s Facebook’s fault. There are a lot of reasonable solutions out there — a switch back to native advertising, a rise in reader contributions, more reliance on direct partnerships — and what eventually shakes out will be some combination of those and some other things and it will only work for a little while. It’s a war of attrition between ad networks, content producers, and readers. But while we all contemplate the Future Of Online Publishing, let us not forget the actions we take today and how they affect the sites we use on a regular basis.

In fairness to the reader, it should be noted that these words will be a little biased. It’s always sticky for writers to opine on the mechanisms that directly affect their pocketbooks. Also, many of the sites I mention are staffed by acquaintances of mine, have paid me money to do things for them, or are just places I respect. Considering the audience, most of this is probably understood, but it should be mentioned.

The ad blockers you install on your browser are both simple and complex. The idea is simple. The blocker scans the code being loaded into the browser, identifies code (usually JavaScript or Flash) that has previously been identified as advertising, and disallows it from loading. The back end — the expanding database of advertising code — can be more complex, but the mechanism is fairly straight forward. These tools stop advertising code from loading. Advertising code can greatly increase the amount of tiem it takes a page to load. It can royally screw up readability and navigation of web pages. It can even install malicious code on your machine. It’s nasty and silly and annoying and nobody likes it. But, to overuse a common trope, it’s the cost of doing business.

Any “free” web site — a web site that does not charge a subscription fee to view its content — needs to make money to run. Bandwidth and server fees need to be covered. Writers have to (hopefully) be paid. Administrative fees have to be taken care of. It’s a business. In lieu of charging you directly, they allow advertisers to display content on their sites. The advertisers pay the web site for the right to do so.

Way back when, advertisers would make direct deals with web sites. Company X would call up Site Y and strike up a deal to advertise their products on the site. This took time and energy, and as the web became exponentially bigger and creating content became easier, this model became quite inefficient. This is where ad networks stepped in. Instead of Site Y working with Company X, Site Y did deals with Network A. Network A did tons of deals with all kinds of companies, and gave Site Y some JavaScript to insert into their code so that Network A could take care of all the rest. Network A would charge the companies, take a little off the top, and pay out Site Y. That’s pretty much where we stand now.

And as the web grew and grew, content expanded rapidly. This created more platforms for ad networks, and drove down the prices that those networks paid to content creators. These days, most sites get about $0.002 per impression or thereabouts. There are certainly other ways for sites to create revenue, but ads don’t pay as much as they used to, and they never paid a whole lot to begin with.

The rise in online advertising also meant that sellers had to do more to get their ads noticed. Ads got goofier, videos began auto-playing, cookies started tracking visitors’ traffic to help in delivering content the robots thought the reader would be interested in. It all culminated in the hot mess we know online advertising to be now. It’s no good, and it bothers almost everyone. And, at the time of this writing, we all need it.

Somewhere down the line — maybe it was the Napster craze, maybe it was the price of so many things getting driven down that the line between paid and free began to disappear — we all decided that it was OK for us to take things from sites and give them nothing in return. The old adage was that if you weren’t paying for a product, you were the product. Your Gmail address isn’t free. Your Facebook account certainly isn’t free. By joining these services, you were entering into a complicit agreement that these services could poke and prod your behavior and use that behavior for their own personal gain. But it’s all in the background. Perhaps this is what conditioned us to think that everything should be free. Online advertising was supposed to follow this model, too. You read something free of charge, and in return you had to see some junky ads. That is, until some smart people created tools that allowed readers to take away those ads, and money started leaking out of creators’ pockets.

When an ad blocker is used, the necessary script isn’t loaded. On the ad networks side, they never see the transaction, so it never gets logged. The site never gets credit for your eyes seeing its content. Bigger companies are affected slightly less. Views of articles on CNN.com, in theory, create brand recognition and increase the likelihood of you watching CNN on TV, where TV ads can be presented to you. For smaller (read: most) sites, this isn’t applicable. They need your eyes, and they need the advertisers to know that your eyes saw the content. Ad blockers stop this from happening.

Your favorite writers (sports or otherwise) need the advertisers to know this. Your favorite spots for opinions, statistics, or humor need this, as well. As someone who expects to consume content for no monetary cost, you agree to allow this. Or, you should. Many don’t. And if you allow ad blockers to prevent these sites from making money, you are, in affect, taking money away from them.

The nice thing about ad-supported content is that it democratizes the Internet. Beyond the cost to acquire Internet access, these sites can be viewed by anyone for free. There is no barrier to entry. Subscription sites aren’t a bad idea at all, but as soon as you do implement that model, you remove the right for some (i.e. lower-income or financially-strapped) readers from seeing your stuff. It’s a choice every creator has to make. But for those that choose to stay free, a horde of challenges await them.

Some of our favorite sites, like Sports Reference, offer ad-free subscriptions that charge a small fee to allow you to browse ad-free. It’s a great solution to the problem, and if you use Sports Reference even more than a little bit, you should consider it. It’s a way to keep ads out of your browser while simultaneously supporting the sites you like.

This site does not offer such subscriptions, nor does its parent site. There are content agreements in place, but ad money still makes up a big chunk of the [x]Graphs family’s revenue. It is a terrible contract that both sides have to enter, but it is necessary.

All of this, and I realize it had been a lot so far, is to say that if you enjoy a site’s content, white-list it from your ad blocker. Are ads annoying? You bet. Do we all wish there was a better way? Certainly. Have we come up with a better idea? Nope. And, until you yourself do, disable that ad blocker. This isn’t a “save our site” plea. This is a call to action to put your money where your mouth is. If you want to read something, suck it up and allow those sites to make money. It’s not pretty, it’s not fun, but it’s only fair.

Think about where we would be without Baseball Reference or Baseball Savant or VICE Sports or Deadspin or SB Nation. Your personal thoughts about these places aside, they helped and continue to help shape the landscape of the business. They aren’t needed on a purely utilitarian scale, but they help us research, enjoy, learn, and appreciate our favorite sports better than most sites can. A world without these sites is a world run solely by Disney, News Corp, and Viacom. Independent sites are good for everyone, regardless of subject matter.

Most independent and/or freelance sports writers on Twitter are pretty approachable. Ask them about the lavish lifestyle they lead as writers. It’s hard. Revenues are falling and therefor pay is falling. And never forget that the marketplace of writers is also growing. It sucks out there. Look at what happened to Sports on Earth. It was a pie in the sky idea that promoted quality writing over everything else and it failed. Money is hard to come by.

Will this ever be fixed? Who knows. Maybe the Golden Age of Internet Writing (if there ever was one) is dead. But until the bouncer kicks us out, let’s all work to make sure the people we like and and admire get as much as they can for all their work. If you use an ad blocker, white-list your go-to sites. If you don’t know how to, Google it. Google will gladly take your query and enter it into the ever-growing list of queries that you allowed it to capture by agreeing to use their service. The Internet is a grimy place full of trade offs. It’s not changing any time soon. Let’s at least support those crazy enough to try and make a living off of it.


TechGraphs News Roundup: 9/25/2015

Before the drones assume full command of our last vestiges of leisure, we wanted to provide you with this News Roundup, which highlights the sports-tech stories from the past week that we found interesting.

First, with dispatches from the very cutting edge, our own Brice Russ was in New York City Tuesday for the On Deck Sports and Technology Conference, scoping out upcoming developments in fan-oriented technology, including MLB’s StatCast, NBA in-arena tech, localized sports networking, and more. Look for additional reports on this event from Brice in the coming days.

It’s late September, which means MLB rosters have expanded in anticipation of the playoffs. Managers’ toolkits are expanding too, as teams now are permitted to use iPads (and other companies’ tablets, presumably) in the dugout during games. The unsurprising catch is that the tablets cannot be connected to a network, and all data– such as batter spray charts and pitcher video– stored on them must be downloaded to the devices no later than three hours before game time. Also, while the devices are allowed in dugouts, bullpens currently remain off-limits, probably because bored relievers are highly susceptible to gaming addiction. So far, reports indicate the Reds and Cardinals are using iPads to some extent in their dugouts. MLB previously restricted use of Apple Watches in dugouts, and the blanket ban on cell phones remains in place. That doesn’t apply to us fans, though, which is neat because a company called Scoutee is developing an app that will turn your smartphone into baseball radar gun.

“Cord-cutting”– the process of disentangling oneself from the expensive morass of packaged cable and satellite television services– is a popular subject around these parts. While new media technology is making this beneficial transition a reality for more and more consumers, the shift is not without its human costs. As people are learning, one of the priciest television channels is ESPN, which, alone, accounts for more than $6.00 of cable and satellite subscribers’ monthly bills, regardless of whether they watch the channel. With cord-cutting on the rise, however, the Worldwide Leader may not be able to sustain its operation by spreading its costs across a broad pool of cable and satellite customers. According to a recent report, ESPN is losing “millions” of subscribers and, in light of the billions of dollars it has committed to broadcast rights for live sporting events, “is gearing up to lay off hundreds of employees to trim costs.” The move away from traditional television services isn’t a total job-killer, though: the linked story quotes John Brillhart, a Minnesota man who works full-time as a “cord-cutting consultant,” and whose name may be the secret identity of Minnesota resident and TechGraphs Managing Editor David G. Temple.

We love science at TechGraphs, and here we find a report on work by some Swedish researchers who set out to discover whether athletic success breeds further success. The study examined professional golfers and compared the performances of the last person to make the cut and the first one to miss the cut at a particular tournament– two very similar golfers– in subsequent tournaments: “In other words, they were asking, if you just happen, largely by chance, to make the cut in tournament A, does that change your odds of making the cut in tournament B?” The result was a strong “yes,” as the researchers found that the golfer who just made the cut in tournament A was much more likely to make the cut in tournament B.

I’ve long contended that the NBA offseason is more exciting than the NBA season itself, and while that contention may merely be a reflection of my personal taste, there’s no doubt that the fairly public tug of war between the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers over DeAndre Jordan was one of the wildest basketball stories since the release of the last AND1 Mixtape. The modern twist on this saga was that the public largely was able to follow the developing story in real time thanks to an emoji battle on Twitter set off by Dallas’ Chandler Parsons. Now comes news that the whole thing was an accident, and that Parsons’ opening salvo actually had nothing to do with Jordan at all. Whatever you think about emojis, or even if you just read that word for the first time in your life, this story clearly illustrates the relative practical merit of New Criticism over traditional authorial intent.

In the least surprising news of the week, the NFL’s got drones now. This letter from the FAA proves it.

Yesterday, we told you that daily fantasy sports site DraftKings has expanded its offerings to include esports (i.e., competitive video game playing). Not to be left in the e-dust, DraftKings rival FanDuel responded simply by buying another site, AlphaDraft, that already offered daily fantasy contests for esports, for an undisclosed amount under $25 million. I’m as tired of the DraftKings and FanDuel advertisements as everyone else, though, so my request to the two competitors is that they not bother me until I can play daily fantasy sports daily fantasy contests. If I can bet on people playing a video game like League of Legends, I should be able to bet on somebody playing DraftKings or FanDuel.

On that metanote, we bid you a good weekend and respectfully request that you be excellent to each other.


DraftKings Joins The Esports Betting Ranks

DraftKings, the daily fantasy site that has saturated the TV airwaves with commercials lately, has just launched their newest wing: esports. As of right now their esports division consists solely of League of Legends matches, however I wouldn’t be surprised to see Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Dota 2 and more titles added. It should come as no surprise to see those three games be the most watched of August for Twitch.tv.

DraftKings isn’t considered gambling, but more of a skill game  — though Arizona, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana and Washington consider it online gambling and prevent their residents from playing it — and esports, the same as in in the traditional athletic world is unfortunately no stranger to gambling and match fixing. From bans in CS:GO due to match fixing last year to StarCraft banning numerous player in 2010 due to a network of match throwers, sadly once money gets involved, people tend to have their morals become a bit more flexible.

While DK may or may not be considered gambling, they are just the latest website to offer payouts based on investments. Ranging from websites such as CSGO Lounge to CSGO Loot, Gosu Gamers and plenty more, there is money to be made — or lost — by wagering your weapon or player “skins” depending on the game. They’re nothing more than digital pixels, but they carry real world monetary value, sometimes in excess of the tens of thousands of dollars.

In the Counter-Strike realm, the sponsoring of so-called gambling sites — not DraftKings, but the others — has been banned in ESEA, a top competitive league. Citing a conflict of interest, insider knowledge and general professionalism, ESEA is making a stand against gambling. Of all the leagues to take the moral high ground on an issue, it’s interesting that ESEA does it, given their shady history. Regardless of previous transgressions, it is likely for the best to see gambling sites being barred from team sponsorship.

An entirely different issue is when people under age-21 wager their skins. These items are worth lots of money, just look at some screencaps from Steam’s Community Market page. Steam is the software distribution portion of Valve, creators of CS:GO and Dota 2. Some of the items for sale on the Valve Community Market are going for $400 dollars, while other third party marketplaces are trading and betting items worth much more money than that.

dota2
While this is certainly an exciting time to be an esports fan — the prize pools have never been bigger, corporate sponsorships are flowing in and possibly a major television league and broadcast deal in the works — seeing as DraftKings sees League of Legends on par with traditional sports, we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. We’ve already seen entire organizations get taken down for throwing matches, some for cheating and with yet another website now offering to exchange cash (not just weapon skins with value tied to them) based on esports results, the cynic in me fears the worst.


TechGraphs Report: On Deck Sports and Technology Conference

Earlier this week, NYC’s Bohemian National Hall played host to hundreds of sports executives, entrepreneurs, and others looking to learn about the very latest in sports technology. Since 2013, the On Deck Sports and Technology Conference (organized and presented by SeatGeek) has provided a forum to showcase what products are “on deck” to help fans follow, analyze, and participate in sports.

On Deck has a slight bent towards sports startups, so a decent amount of the conference was geared more towards raising capital, scaling businesses, etc. Still, there were plenty of fascinating talks, panels and interviews for anyone interested in straight sports tech.

Statcast And Beyond

Possibly the most entertaining talk of the day was Joe Inzerillo’s (CTO, MLBAM) update on MLB’s Statcast, which is finally getting its moment in the sun this season. For those who needed a refresher on how Statcast operates, Inzerillo discussed its missile-technology radar system, its stereoscopically-placed cameras, and how these allow each Major League ballpark to track the movements of every player on the field (plus the ball) at any given time.

Once Statcast has this information, as Inzerillo pointed out, it can then provide real-time data on pitch velocity (actual and perceived), player velocity and reaction time, and a horde of other quantitative metrics, plus more advanced data on a 12-second delay, like fielding route efficiency. This data is just inherently cool (as you likely know if you’ve seen a Statcast-enhanced game or highlight on television), but it’s also already being used to both question and confirm existing baseball strategies.

For an example of the latter, Inzerillo looked at the fallacy of sliding into first using Statcast to plot Eric Hosmer’s 1B slide in Game 7 of the last World Series. Hosmer hit a peak speed of 20.9 MPH before sliding and being out by less than a tenth of a second. If he had just kept running, Statcast found, he would have been safe by nearly a foot. Statcast is already getting noticed by clubs, and even players — batters like to talk smack, apparently, over who has the highest exit velocity.

During questions, Inzerillo was slightly cautious about committing to the future of Statcast, but he did mention that minor league stadiums were a natural next step, and that there was plenty of work being done on developing new metrics. Statcast already tracks ‘defensive range’ for fielders, for example, but since a player doesn’t travel the same speed in every direction, there’s a need to find the more amorphous ‘effective defensive range’ and how it changes–such as during defensive shifts.

On the football side of things, Sportradar’s Tom Masterman talked about the NFL’s NGS (Next Gen Stats) platform, which is collecting data on every single game in 2015 to track, analyze, and visualize how players are moving on the field. NGS is already being distributed to clubs, media, and health and safety personnel; the long-term goal is to have X,Y,Z coordinates for every player and official, plus the ball.

Go Bucks

On Deck’s attendees weren’t just league officials and startup managers–the conference started with a live interview of Wes Edens, who became co-owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks in 2014. Much of the conversation focused on the new Bucks arena, which was being voted on by the Milwaukee city council literally as the interview was ongoing. As it’s currently planned, the presently-unnamed arena will focus heavily on keeping fans digitally connected — giving attendees plenty of WiFi, for example. At the same time, Edens noted, they want to avoid fans using technology to become distracted from the game going on in front of them. (Edens used the phrase “Instagram culture”, specifically, though he noted that he himself has had these sorts of problems before.)

Edens was similarly balanced when the discussion turned to analytics. One of the first things Edens did after buying the Bucks was to build their analytics program — bringing on employees, consultants and even discussing methodologies with other owners. There’s definitely a “golden age” of analytics in basketball going on.  Edens even thinks the NBA will end up surpassing the MLB as the leader in sports technology. But when he was asked about how the players feel?

“It’s a good question,” Edens replied. “There’s definitely lines that can be crossed” with having too much data being made public, at least when it can affect the privacy of the players (such as rest/injury issues).

Edens also briefly discussed the role of the referees and the potential benefits of replay and “the new center across the river“. Could we see yet more referee technology, even an Oculus Rift-type headset for NBA officials, in the future? “Totally possible.”

Era of Mobility

When it came time to look at how fans themselves were interacting with sports, technologically, it became clear that mobile is “it.” In that panel about growing sports startups I mentioned earlier, representatives from SeatGeek, FanDuel and Krossover all praised the importance of the mobile web for their companies–SeatGeek’s rep described it as a “tale of two companies”, pre- and post-mobile, and Krossover’s founder mentioned they’re considering dumping their web app altogether in lieu of just being on smartphones and tablets. When Yahoo Sports’ VP of engineering presented a chart showing their fantasy football traffic from this season’s Week 1, the fraction of non-mobile data was a pretty small sliver at the top.

Yahoo fantasy data graph

Trust me, it’s there.

Even companies you might never expect to get in the mobile game are joining and succeeding. Jeremy Strauser had 20 years of gaming experience at EA Sports and Zynga before joining one of the most loved and enduring brands in the sports industry, Topps. Yep, they’re digital playing cards.

Topps first got into the digital game 4 years ago and how has three top-selling sports card apps, plus a newly launched Star Wars-themed set. Why should you be interested in buying trading cards on your phone? One starting point is the capabilities the digital platform provides — literally hundreds of thousands of different designs, the ability to create all manner of rare and unique cards, etc.

Topps is also rolling out a daily fantasy sports feature (DFS was a major topic of conversation at On Deck) that allows you to compete using the players in your card deck and swapping them in and out in real time as they go up to pitch or bat. It probably doesn’t hurt, either, that they won’t take up space under your bed or get thrown out by your mom when you’re away at college.

Topps conference talk

Coming To Your Hometown

If you want to look for the next wave of sports technology, though, look to your neighborhood.

Rather than providing new tools or analytics for MLB, the NFL or the NBA, the newest sports apps want to help you participate in sports in your own town. On Deck wrapped up with a “Startup Pitch Contest” a la Shark Tank where teams had four minutes to present their groundbreaking app to a group of judges. The six competitors included:

  • Wooter – a search engine for finding and joining sports and activities like local rec leagues. Wooter provides profiles for leagues looking to form teams, players looking to join them, and the tools to process payment and set up other logistics.
  • NextPlay – helping youth coaches conduct tryouts and league drafts. For $15/month, instead of taking a stopwatch, a bunch of handwritten notes, and an Excel spreadsheet to put together youth rosters, NextPlay handles all the data collection and analytics itself. Their beta has been used by “a couple hundred organizations” and over 10,000 athletes.
  • ScoreStream – filling a gap in local journalism by crowdsourcing reports on high school sports.

With a really impressive presentation, broad coverage (10,300 HS games covered last week alone) and the #1 iOS app for high school sports, I really thought Scorestream would walk away with the prize, but it ended up going to…

  • SidelineSwap, a P2P marketplace for sporting goods. SidelineSwap has over 43,000 registered users who’re interested in trading out sporting gear just collecting dust in their basement or garage. They’re working on building partnerships with youth organizations and promoting used college-branded material, which should play very well with their chief audience of high school students.

On the whole, On Deck was a whirlwind experience for learning about cutting-edge sports tech. This report only covers part of everything I caught there. Watch for further updates and profiles soon!


MLB is Cracking Down on Your Twitter GIFs

Our days of posting our favorite baseball highlights on Twitter might be coming to an end, if they haven’t already. Recently, it appears as if MLB Advanced Media has been requesting that Twitter remove GIFs (technically, GIFs uploaded to Twitter are converted into video files, but the idea remains) that they believe violate copyright laws. It’s a move that’s both within the rights of MLBAM, yet still slightly confusing from a fan-engagement standpoint. If this is a harbinger of things to come, then our days sharing sports GIFs with our friends and followers might soon be over.

I first heard of the new policy via FanGraphs writer Jeff Sullivan. He had created a GIF of Felix Hernandez and tweeted it, but later got an email alerting him that it had been taken down.

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As it happens, MLB had a video of the same highlight on their site. Now, Jeff’s GIF would be in violation of copyright whether MLB had their own highlight posted or not, it just seems like more than a coincidence. In the full email the above picture is referencing, there were other reported tweets from different Twitter users — notably @cjzero, who posts many videos of various sports through the social media platform. Sullivan believes this to be a mistake.

“Weirdly, in the same email, I saw notice of identical complaints filed about @cjzero and @megrowler. I probably wasn’t supposed to see those but multiple people responsible for this are stupid,” he said.

However, it shows that he is not the only one being targeted in this new development.

The idea is simple. MLB sees a GIF of a play or highlight and notices that they have the same video hosted on their web site. However, when the video is viewed on their web site, an ad is played beforehand. On Twitter, it’s not. MLB loses a (probably very tiny) source of revenue. MLB asks Twitter to take it down, Twitter complies.

(Note, I am not a lawyer. The following is simply my speculation based on the fact that I am a reasonable human adult)

Is it a violation of copyright laws? Yes. Well, probably. It all depends on your (or a judge’s) take on what’s fair use. There was actually a big decision in the courts recently about media takedowns and fair use. In what’s now known as the dancing baby case (no, not that dancing baby), a parent was instructed by YouTube to take down a video they had posted of their baby because the radio in the background was playing a song by Prince. The video taker, Stephanie Lenz, along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued Universal Music Group (the copyright holder) claiming that Universal did not consider fair use before ordering the video’s removal. Eventually, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in Lenz’s favor. The gist is that Lenz didn’t just post a Prince music video, but a video in which the song happened to be playing. It falls under the umbrella of fair use.

There are four basic factors of fair use:

  • the purpose and character of your use
  • the nature of the copyrighted work
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion taken, and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market.

Lenz’s claim most likely falls under the first. Lenz did not post the video with the intent of allowing people to listen to Prince for free. If Jeff Sullivan (or anyone else effected by MLBAM’s new attitude) wanted to contest their treatment, they might have some ground to stand on, but it would be shaky. Number three seems plausible if you take the length of a clip against the length of a whole game, but as I’m sure MLBAM considers a highlight to be just as much copyrighted as an entire game.

In the long run, fighting a copyright claim probably isn’t worth it. It is worth it, however, to question just who is being served here. Major League Baseball is worth over $30 billion. Are they really going to cry “poor” when some people don’t have to watch a T-Mobile ad before a highlight of a home run? And, to me, the chance to screw over MLB isn’t in most poster’s interests either. The point is simple — GIFs play right in the browser when scrolling through Twitter. Sure, people can link the MLB clip, but it would involve extra clicking. Is it a big deal? Not really. But the immediacy of it all is what makes Twitter Twitter.

Let us not forget that nearly every baseball GIF people post enhances MLB’s brand. The NBA figured this out early. They let anyone with iMovie and some time post highlights, mash-ups, parodies, etc. to YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and the like. If you want to find a baseball clip on YouTube, you better hope that MLB has posted it themselves. Otherwise, there are no others to be found.

Because of my experience as a baseball writer, I immediately wondered about MLB’s new stance impacting baseball sites and blogs. A lot of writers use GIFs for analysis or to drive home a point. Are we to believe that this practice will be in jeopardy? Sullivan doesn’t think so, at least for right now.

“I’ve never heard of MLBAM complaining about gifs used at FanGraphs,” he said in an email correspondence. “Similarly, I don’t recall ever getting a complaint about gifs I used at SB Nation or Lookout Landing. Maybe something just slipped my mind, but there’s never been anything systematic. It seems they’re mostly okay with gifs used in the context of analysis, but viral stuff on Twitter — that gets their attention. Maybe because they’re trying to establish their own social presence and they want something approximating a monopoly of coverage. But this is speculation! I’m probably going to keep trying #pitchergifs because I’m a dangerous rebel who likes danger.”

I did reach out to MLBAM for comment, but have not heard back as of this writing. In the interest of full disclosure, my email provider did go down for about 20 minutes this morning. It’s unlikely that they tried to reach me then, but I mention it just in case. In truth Major League Baseball — a sports league that has a very large and powerful media empire named after it — has been fairly tone deaf when it comes to these types of things. Recently, they’ve made a big push with things like Cut4 and their Twitter account to promote their game. It’s a shame that they view other people, fans who want to help them out for free, simply as copyright violators. The fans are on MLB’s side on this one. At least for now. If this behavior continues, they might start losing some of their most connected and promotional fans. That would be a shame for both sides.


How David Ortiz Keeps Hitting Homers

On September 12, David Ortiz led off the top of the fifth inning by turning on a Matt Moore curveball, depositing it into the Tropicana Field bleachers for his second home run of the day and the 500th of his career. Ortiz became the 27th MLB hitter to reach the 500-homer milestone, and (at 39 years and 298 days) the fifth-oldest.

Ortiz didn’t get regular at bats until his age 24 season with Minnesota, and when he first came to the Red Sox, he shared the DH role with the immortal Jeremy Giambi. Contrast that with fellow Dominican and 500-homer man Albert Pujols, who had already played three full seasons by that age and collected 114 home runs as the Cardinals’ everyday left fielder. How has Ortiz managed to overcome this late start and defy the aging curve to hit dingers long after other sluggers have seen their power decline?

We can glean some extra insights from Ortiz’s relationship with Zepp’s baseball sensor. Because Ortiz is one of nine MLB players who endorse the Zepp baseball sensor, Zepp includes data and video from a couple of his swings with their app. And even when compared to the other professionals they’ve worked with, Ortiz’s swing impresses the Zepp scientists.

“Most of the athletes we work with are 25 years old, in the prime of their career,” Trevor Stocking, Zepp’s product manager for baseball and softball, said. “For him to have the kind of bat speed he does at age 38, 39, 40, it’s really special.”

David Ortiz Data - Total

Looking at his swing data (pictured above), we see Ortiz’s swing speed is in line with other Zepp athletes like Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout, and Hunter Pence. Ortiz’s time to impact (how early before contact the hitter starts his swing) is just above league-average. According to Zepp, most professional hitters’ time to impact is between .14 and .18 seconds; Ortiz was clocked at .138 seconds.

David Ortiz Bat Speed Impact

Viewing his swing path in the three-dimensional representation above, we see that Ortiz focuses on keeping his hands close to his body, ensuring the bat stays on a direct path to the ball with a minimal amount of wasted energy. This helps keep his bat fast and his swing quick.

But Ortiz is a giant of a man, listed at 6’4″ and 230 pounds. For younger players who use this technology to compare their swings to that of their heroes, it might not be a great idea (or even possible) to mimic his strategy without his strength. But Stocking says there are still lessons to be learned from his data.

“What you come away with each time you work with David Ortiz is a respect for how hard he works,” Stocking said. “He understands his swing and has a plan when he gets in the batter’s box. That’s something we can all strive to do.”

Apart from Ortiz’s successes, Zepp has had a few accomplishments of their own this summer. The company inked deals with the Angels, Diamondbacks, Padres, and Rays to provide sensors and data to hitters throughout those organizations. CEO Jason Fass said the four teams are additions to Zepp’s existing stable of MLB organizations, but declined to divulge how many or which teams, citing non-disclosure agreements.

Zepp also strengthened their existing relationship with Perfect Game, providing sensors for in-game use at this summer’s showcase events like the PG All-American Classic. The in-game data from such high-level talent provided a novel database for Zepp’s research.

“It’s the first time ever this kind of data has been recorded with pro-level talent,” Stocking said.

The Perfect Game data also hinted at a relationship between attack angle (or swing plane) and success. In the admittedly small sample gathered at the showcase, the average hit was associated with a slight uppercut, an attack angle of 12 degrees. Most outs, on the other hand, were produced by a nearly flat or slightly downward swing, having an average attack angle of -2 degrees.

“This would back up a lot of our MLB data that tells us most line drives occur when the attack angle is between five and 20 degrees,” Stocking said.

The Zepp sensor is a square, neon green device held in place by a flexible strap that goes over the knob of the bat. The sensor contains two accelerometers and one gyroscope, allowing Zepp to track the bat’s path through six degrees of freedom. Having two accelerometers allows the sensor to track the large, high-frequency accelerations that happen around impact while still accurately tracking the lower-frequency accelerations as the bat moves through the zone. The sensor connects via Bluetooth to an Android or iOS phone or tablet, where swing data (and simultaneous video) can be captured, stored, and compared to friends and professionals like Ortiz, Stanton, Trout, and others.


TechGraphs News Roundup: 9/18/2015

Happy Friday, dear readers. Between the baseball playoff push and the beginning of the pro and college football seasons, we are in for another wild sports weekend. Between your gulps of beer and piles of nachos, feel free to cleanse your palette with all the sports-tech stories we found interesting this week.

I’ve been using technology to improve my golf practice (look for that article soon), so when Wilson announced their new smart basketball that helps players get stats on their practice sessions, I was intrigued. The implementation seems fairly simple and straightforward. It seems most applicable to serious student and pro athletes, but I suppose anyone who wants to improve on their skills before their next pickup game could benefit.

For the first time ever, the FIFA video game franchise will feature women players this year. This is good! However, never content to let anything go unsullied, the NCAA is, once again, ruining things. Due to eligibility concerns, 16 women players have been pulled from the digital rosters of FIFA 16. Though the athletes and EA Games seemed to do everything by the book, the players didn’t want to risk their collegiate futures by disobeying the all-mighty NCAA. They weren’t getting paid to appear on the game, but the NCAA still found a reason to not let these talented women represent their countries. The NCAA has their stellar reputation to uphold, after all.

Golden Tee is making the jump from the pub floor to your phone. Now, enjoy all the fun of virtual golf without the ever-present smell of cigarettes and stale beer. Not having to put your hand on that cesspool of a rollerball is also a plus. Though, it’s not as if your smartphone isn’t without its own germ farms.

In case you weren’t annoyed enough with the respective brands by themselves, Snapchat has teamed up with the NFL. Simply subscribe to the NFL’s Live Story feed and get inundated with countless pictures and video every Sunday. Just don’t expect to see broadcast footage beamed over with cat faces on it — TV video won’t be sent via the service.

ESPN has a nice story about the Miami Dolphins and how they are using all kinds of technology to help keep their athletes healthy. There’s even mention of their work with Kitman Labs, which our own Dr. Bryan Cole profiled not too long ago.

Bad news, wannabe daily fantasy millionaires: The system is already rigged against you.

Last year, NBA 2K15‘s facial scanning features lead to some terrifying results. This year, NBA Live 16 is taking a crack at it, and, according to Polygon, the results are much less nightmare-inducing.

You think getting a pre-draft spreadsheet together for your fantasy football league is hard? Try being the guy in charge of assigning skills to every player in Madden.

Finally, if your day has been wrecked by Google Now leaking sports scores when you were DVRing a game, Gizmodo has a nice write-up on how to save yourself from future frustration

That’s all for this week. Have a great weekend, and be excellent to each other.


PSA: iOS 9 on iPad Allows Picture-in-Picture for MLB At Bat

One of the more heralded features of Apple’s new iOS 9 was a feature called picture-in-picture (available on iPad only). It allows users to shrink down a currently-playing video down to the corner of the iPad screen so they can use other apps while the video still plays. I certainly piqued my interests — could I finally watch MLB.tv on my iPad with the ability to shoot off a quick tweet or email? On the first day of iOS 9’s public availability, my questions were answered.

Given MLB’s long-standing partnership with Apple, I half expected the feature to be available from the get-go. As I played with the new OS, I found this to not be the case.

However, later that day, the fine folks at MLB Fan Support set me straight.

Once I updated the app this morning, I was able to take it for a test drive.

To enable the feature, one only needs to click thte PiP icon when the video is playing. It immediately pops into the corner. Users can then adjust the size of the video, restore to full screen, or close it all together. If you have a new-ish iPad, just update to iOS 9 (if you haven’t already) and update the At Bat app.

The whole experience was very slick during my testing. As someone who likes using my iPad to watch MLB.tv, I’m excited to finally get the ability to use other apps while I’m watching. I often use commercial breaks to send a couple emails or see what’s going on with Twitter.

iOS 9 also offers a feature called slide over, which allows users to bring a condensed view of an app (like Mail or Twitter) onto the screen while their main app remains. I tested this with At Bat as well, but the slide over brings focus to the new app and pauses playback of the video.

Now, when I want to use another app during a commercial or even during a slow part of the game, I can send my video down to the corner of the screen and do what I need to get done.

Yes, it’s a feature that computers could do forever — and almost any device that plugs into a TV can play MLB.tv, freeing up the hands for other applications, but for those of us who like to watch baseball while doing the dishes or cooking dinner, this new way to multitask will prove to be very helpful. MLB Advanced Media has a strong relationship with Apple. Let’s hope that other sports get in on the picture-in-picture action soon.


Serie A to Premiere Brand New Soccer Streaming Service

I personally believe the old saying “all roads lead to Rome” tends to embody “different means to the same end” and in the case of online streaming versus traditional cable subscriptions, money as always, is the bottom line. In regards to the streaming cash flow, once again Rome — okay, all of Italy — is front and center in accomplishing the end of collecting revenue, this time by means of streaming. Today the top league of Italian soccer, Serie A, announced a service that beginning on Saturday, will stream three fixtures per weekend.

The price for viewing access is 3.99 for the weekend or €2.00 per individual match. In addition to the games themselves, each will have both pre- and post-game shows for analysis and news for the matches and around the league. It’s a huge move away from the old school television broadcasts, and for here in the United States, where beIN Sports holds the broadcasting rights. Serie A is the first major European league to offer a service of this kind and this could bring about a huge boost to their fandom abroad.

Via Statista, as of 2013, Serie A held the second highest broadcast revenue, trailing only the English Premier League.

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An argument could be made that Italy’s top league isn’t the powerhouse it once was, however the league has posted solid results in UEFA Champions League play, the top continental league in Europe. Even after Serie A lost one of their bids to Germany’s Bundesliga following the 2011-12 season, they’ve posted respectable results. Since being limited to three teams receiving bids to the Champions League, Italian powerhouse Juventus has managed a runner-up finish in the CL last year and both Roma and Milan have made appearances in the Group Stage of the tournament as well. Even with four teams (Juventus, AC Milan, Inter and Napoli) in the top-20 most valuable soccer clubs as of 2015, Serie A has some catching up to do if they’d like to match the brand value of the titans of European soccer.

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If this streaming agreement opens up the first of many more casual soccer fans here in the US, all the better. The individual game price is well worth testing the waters of Serie A, but the model of online viewing is the most important part. If other leagues — namely the Premier League, Bundesliga or Ligue One — are able to find a way to offer streamed soccer, it will be another huge win, much like Fox Soccer 2 Go, for cord-cutting soccer fans.


Kinduct Sports Offering Featured in Dodgers Accelerator Program

Kinduct Technologies made waves in the sports tech world when they were selected as one of ten companies in the Dodgers Accelerator program. But CEO Travis McDonough admits that his company is more mature than many of his fellow participants.

“We have 40 employees, we’ve got many many different clients, we’re across different industries, we have a mature operating system,” he said. “We have now 50 professional sporting organizations that are using our tool and it changes every day.”

The tool, which is known as the Athlete Management System, aggregates data from wearable, camera-based, and even more subjective systems into a single environment. The system includes visualization tools so teams can search for correlations between the data themselves, and a machine learning component to further guide organization training plans. The system gives vital help to organizations trying to understand the massive amounts of data they collect from games and practices.

“There’s been an explosion of ancillary tracking tools on the market today, everything from camera systems to GPS trackers to heart rate monitors to smart phones,” McDonough said. “And all those data sources, as valuable as they are, reside in siloed pockets.”

In addition to the Athlete Management System, Kinduct offers similar services in the health care, wellness, and human performance market (which covers military and law enforcement applications). Their experience in these other fields informs the algorithms behind their athletic products.

“Because we have had the opportunity to start to figure the machine learning side out on the health side, we’re able to cross-pollinate and apply it to the sports market,” McDonough said.

But the operating system and machine learning tools are only as effective as the data they can handle. McDonough said Kinduct works with their clients to incorporate both new and existing sources of data. Their web page lists relationships with camera-based systems including the NBA’s SportVu system, as well as wearable trackers like Polar Global and Catapult, among others.

“We’re very agnostic, and we love to pull in data from as many sources as possible,” he said. “So we are absolutely delighted at the new technologies that are coming out, and all these emerging data sources are exactly what make us more powerful.”

Kinduct counts dozens of sports organizations among its clients — including “more than half the NBA,” according to McDonough — and is working with a few unnamed leagues to manage data across all teams. The obvious differences are there, of course: basketball teams have different expectations for their relationship with Kinduct than hockey teams or baseball clubs. But the varying levels of sophistication across organizations provides an additional challenge, and Kinduct has to ramp up or scale back their offerings according to the client’s experience and comfort level.

“The NBA teams, they put their arms right around technology so we adopt what they use,” McDonough said. “When it comes to other organizations … they’re looking for recommendations by us to suggest ancillary technologies that can do the best job of tracking their players.

From a researcher’s perspective, the fact that Kinduct works with such a large percentage of the NBA is exciting. Deep in their databases is tracking and data, across games and practices, on dozens of elite athletes. McDonough estimated that the average NBA team spent $10 million on players sidelined with “preventable” injuries, repetitive stress injuries arising from flawed biomechanics that he likened to a stone cutter chipping away at a rock. And while McDonough was more than happy to describe how an individual team could combine their various data sources to find potential injury markers, he also stressed his company’s respect for the “firewall” that protects not only each team’s raw data, but also any metrics they build on top to analyze those data.

“It’s almost like we provide a technological apartment building, but each and every team moves their specific furniture and wallpaper in it, and the keys to the front door are locked down so no one can go in it but that organization,” he said.

Still, he agreed that a league-wide approach would be more effective, allowing coaches and staff to spot trends in a wider sample of data that could keep players off the trainer’s table.

“The right thing in the future is for leagues to be able to analyze the data and intervene to make sure the players are playing at their best and reducing injury as best as they can,” McDonough said.

Nevertheless, Kinduct is still dealing with health care data, which is subject to a wide range of safeguards to protect patient confidentiality. On top of that, athletes and the players associations that represent them remain leery about biomechanical data being used against them during contract negotiations. Players associations also objected to earlier iterations of the system that tracked athlete workouts during the off-season as excessive. As a result, Kinduct has worked to produce a system that provides the data front offices are after while remaining as unobtrusive as possible to players.

“For a player, they just want to win games, they want to win a championship,” McDonough said. “And a level of surveillance [during the season] seems to be acceptable by both the players’ association, the players, and of course management and ownership.”

It was announced in August that Kinduct was one of the ten companies selected for the Dodgers’ first annual accelerator program, which will run through a “demo day” November 15. The Dodgers are running the accelerator in conjunction with advertising agency R/GA, who has successfully run a number of similar programs in the past. Described by McDonough as “almost like a business boot camp,” the program offers Kinduct mentoring from a who’s who of sports executives and a chance to get more exposure.

“What we have is a Ferrari in a garage,” he said. “This allows us to open the garage door and have more people see our Ferrari. And people want to drive it, and it’s exciting.”

For now, McDonough and his staff have moved to Los Angeles to participate in the accelerator, and plan to open an office in the U.S. after the program to expand into the American market, especially in the health care, fitness, and military areas that fall under the same “human performance” umbrella as the company’s Athlete Management System. Still, McDonough said the company would remain true to its Canadian roots regardless of its excursions south of the border.

“We’ll always have a home base in Halifax,” McDonough said. “But we need to have a bigger presence in the United States.”


On the Fairness of the PITCHf/x Box Being Shown on TV

Recently, yours truly was a guest on the Offspeed Podcast talking about the plausibility of robot umpires being used in baseball. Not humanoid robots, really — more like a system of lasers or cameras similar to what the San Rafael Pacifics used recently in a game/publicity stunt. I mentioned how PITCHf/x could be better utilized to monitor and grade umpires, bringing a level of accountability to the whole process. There are a lot of caveats that go into all that, and I would suggest you listen to the episode to get all my thoughts if you are interested, as I’m not keen on regurgitating all of them here. But as I was watching Monday’s Astros/Rangers game, my thinking started to change. There were some questionable calls, as there always are in any game. But we only knew they were really questionable because of the broadcast’s replay and the use of PITCHf/x technology. It got me wondering; is it fair that we as fans are the only people that get to see the strike zone in real time?

Criticisms of the home plate umpire are nothing new. Way back when, fans in the bleachers would argue over balls and strikes. Then TV came, and fans could yell at it over a call. A little later, instant replay was brought into the fold, further increasing the fans’ abilities to form opinions on where a pitch crossed the plate. High definition video did the same. And recently, almost every network has utilized some form of PITCHf/x visualization on screen. Some do it in replays, others have it emblazoned on the screen for every pitch. Never before have we been able to criticize umpires, hitters, and pitchers over their respective opinions on the strike zone to such a degree. And the weirdest part as that we are the only people who can see it. That’s kind of nuts. In essence, we have a better understanding of the strike zone than those who are in charge of it, or whose successes or failures depend on it. It’s an odd situation we’ve put ourselves in. And I’m wondering if something doesn’t need to change.

The first option would be for MLB to enforce some sort of rule and abolish the PITCHf/x box in broadcasts all together. As complaining about home plate umpire calls is in the list of Top One Favorite Things for a Baseball Fan to Do, I don’t really see that happening. I would imagine most fans wouldn’t care (or would even applaud) if the permanent box went away, but it would certainly be missed on replays. FOX would get a slew of complaints during the postseason if our favorite umpire-measuring tool was to go away. Like $10 beer and God Bless America, it’s part of the game now, like it or not.

The second option would be to figure out a way to have the strike zone represented in real life — some sort of hologram displaying the dimensions for the pitchers, hitters, umpires, and fans to see. I understand that this would be SUPER WEIRD. But it would be effective. In all honesty, if we went through all the trouble of installing this system, we could probably do away with the home plate umpire all together and have a laser/camera setup make the decisions for us. This is the premise of the #RobotUmpsNow movement. It would be extremely accurate, and honestly would give a solid foundation to one of the more important dimensions of the game.

This seems foreign, because until very recently, it wasn’t possible. Baseball is full of lines, but strike zone lines (with the exception of the actual home plate) were never available. But it’s 2015, and it is possible now. So why hasn’t baseball adopted it?

Every other sport has lines painted where the boundaries of the game lie. This lets the players and officials know when that boundary has been crossed. We wouldn’t dream of playing a football game on a field without the goal lines. Though ball placement by officials in the NFL can leave things to be desired, the first down line is still represented by a movable arrow on the sidelines. Hockey, tennis, EVERY OTHER SPORT has visible lines depicting what’s in play and what’s out. Yet, in baseball, the strike zone — the area where every play begins — does not.

Except if you are watching at home, that is. Umpires (allegedly) get graded on their interpretation of a strike zone that they cannot see. There are dimensions written in the rules, certainly. But remember that the whole balls/strikes thing was invented when pitchers threw underhand and curve balls were illegal. Dudes are humping it up over 100 MPH and dropping nasty breaking balls in our current game. Isn’t it a little unfair to ask the human eye to interpret that data on the spot?

Yes, it takes away certain aspects of the game — I’ve even argued this myself. Some pitchers possess the ability to widen the strike zone over the course of the game. Some catchers have the ability to frame pitches to make them look like strikes. These are tangible skills that would be reduced should a concrete strike zone be put in place. But sometimes you have to break a few eggs, especially when the fairness of the sport is in question.

I doubt any of this will change in my lifetime. I’m not even sure it should. Baseball is a sport built on and respectful of tradition — some times to a fault. That doesn’t erase the fact that it’s still being played with an ostensibly-invisible boundary that we certainly have the capability of representing visually. When the fans have access to slow-motion replays at 60 frames per second of pitches traveling over a superimposed strike zone, and everyone actually involved in the game has to just kind of guess and wing it, it creates a strange dichotomy. Science and technology have created bigger and stronger athletes, faster pitches, and a system that can track a ball’s position in a split second. And for the most part, we’re asking umpires to just eyeball it. I’m not quite sure in whose interests that serves. The fans are better equipped to calls balls and strikes than the umpires now. Perhaps it’s time that everyone on the actual field of play are afforded the same luxuries that we are.

(Image via ESPN)

Behind the Code: Sports-Reference Founder Sean Forman

Behind the Code is an interview series centered around the sports-related web sites we use every day. The first installment features Sports-Reference founder Sean Forman.

For the first century of sports, newspapers, almanacs, and baseball cards were the medium of choice for communicating statistics. But the world of sports statistics has gone from paper to electric in less than two decades — and the Sports-Reference family of websites has been a key component in that transition.

We caught up with Sean Forman, founder of the Sports-Reference network — which includes Baseball-Reference.com, Pro-Football-Reference.com, and Basketball-Reference.com — and talked about the genesis and future of his family of stats sites.

Bradley Woodrum: What inspired you to start the site back in 2000? I know David Appelman started FanGraphs to help his fantasy team. Did B-Ref have equally humble beginnings? Or was the expectation to become, essentially, the modern almanac for sports statistics?

Sean Forman: I had a similar creation story. There was really nobody doing an online encyclopedia and I thought it would be a great medium for that work. You could hyperlink between pages. So rather than leafing through a book (sounds crazy now) to hunt down Joe DiMaggio’s teammates you could just click a link and see them all. I didn’t expect it to do much. I worked hard on it for two months (while I was in grad school and should have been working on my dissertation) and got the basic site done.

BW: What was the online sports statistics scene back in 2000? What were your go-to resources for stats before Sports-Reference and before the Lahman database?

SF: The Lahman DB was the first bones of the site. It wouldn’t have happened without Lahman’s DB and the work of Pete Palmer that the Lahman DB is based upon. There was no historical content really online in 2000. TotalBaseball.com had a site, but it was barely usable. I was a disciple of Jakob Nielsen at that time, so my focus on usability and ease of use really paid off initially as there was so much cruft out there in web design. Splash pages, flash sites, image maps, blink and marquees.

While TotalBaseball.com had a pretty nifty biography section for major players back in 2000, it lacked the meat of a more statistically rigorous site.

While TotalBaseball.com had a pretty nifty biography section for major players back in 2000, it lacked the meat of a more statistically rigorous site.

BW: I understand you were previously a teacher before working on Sports-Reference full time. What was that transition like? And how did you finally make the decision to go full time?

SF: I was a full-time math/CS professor for six years. I actually completed the site before taking that job. During that time, I did B-R in my free time. One mitigating factor is that we weren’t updating in-season at that time, so the stress was a lot lower and we didn’t need to be as on top of things. I could leave it for a week and not worry about it.

BW: The Sports-Ref family is famous for its Spartan design — outside of the player pictures on B-Ref, there’s, what, a single PNG on the whole site, and that’s the logo. Even the interactive charts and graphs have a minimalist design. Has this aesthetic lasted the test of time for its functionality, or is it more just the site’s personality at this point?

SF: [It has a] few more [pictures] than that, but not many. We are trying to reduce them further.

It’s both our personality and for functionality reasons. I’ve heard some people call it the Craigslist of baseball stats. I like to think one of our strengths is that we can view the site from the user perspective better than most. That is really hard to do. We have 250 MB internet connections and gigantic phones and use the latest chrome browser and know internally how the site is put together, but a new user has none of that. They may be on an old windows machine with a 1200×800 resolution with a slow internet connection. Basically you’ve got to make things more obvious than you can even imagine being necessary.

We had a good example of this last week. We launched a new “register” section to combine the minors, Japan, NLB, Cuba and KBO stats into one area. Larry Doby is our test case for this. We called it register because we’ve got 70+ Sporting News Baseball Registers on our shelves and those showed the stats pretty much in the way we are doing it now. Within 20 minutes of launching, we got complaints that we’d taken away the minor league stats, asking are were expecting people to “sign-up” (read register) for the site. We should have caught that on our end, but we were able to fix it quickly and improve the clarity in the process.

Larry Doby's page shows the new layout and links for the stats register. Even small changes like this can cause big waves with users.

Larry Doby’s page shows the new layout and links for the stats register. Even small changes like this can cause big waves with users.

BW: Speaking of the lesser known stats, the B-Ref Bullpen has developed into a go-to resource for baseball fans and writers, oftentimes trumping player’s actual Wikipedia pages. What inspired you to add this feature? Do you expect the basketball and football sites will eventually get their own wiki’s too?

SF: I started it because 1) I love Wikipedia. Wikipedia may be the greatest human accomplishment of all time. I’m not joking. Think about how valuable having all of that knowledge in one place is. (DONATE!). 2) For good reason Wikipedia starts their baseball articles with info like “Ty Cobb is an American baseball player…” and I thought that it would be interesting to put together pages for players that were more in depth and baseball oriented than wiki would want. The funny thing is that the star players get almost no treatment on our site, but we have 1000’s of words on Japanese players, Negro Leaguers and early players. It makes sense as there is a need to know about those players.

As for the other sites, we probably should have just done it by now. I’ve been skeptical we’d get any traction with them, but it would have been a good idea to start them.

BW: Baseball, basketball, football, hockey, and Olympics. Is there any area remaining that you might want to add? Maybe prep / high school stats?

SF: The great frontier is soccer (fbref.com). It makes the history of professional baseball look like child’s play. We have a great dataset and hope to get something launched this winter. My favorite stat I’ve discovered is that the English Wikipedia has more pro soccer clubs listed than there have been players in Major League Baseball history.

BW: Oh wow. I can’t even conceptualize that many teams. I’m looking forward to see how you handle that!

A big thanks to Sean for taking the time to talk with us! Be sure to give him a follow on Twitter at @Sean_Forman.


TechGraphs News Roundup: 9/11/2015

After a laborious break, the News Roundup is back with the football sports-tech stories we found interesting this week.

Tennis may be slower to embrace technology than other sports, but if the All England Club can get web-savvy, you know the game is catching up to the curve. For recent evidence of that, we look to Damien Saunder and mapping software company ESRI. Saunder has been using data from Hawk-Eye, the camera system in place for the purpose of line-call challenges, and other sources to develop data visualizations of entire tennis matches. With counting stats (e.g., “How many aces did Serena hit in her last match?”) still dominating the tennis analysis conversation, Saunder believes his visualizations, and the practical information derived from them, can provide qualitative context to the whens and wheres of events that drive results in a sport in which timing and location matter. (And speaking of Hawk-Eye, this new Wall Street Journal interactive site lets you go eye-to-eye in a line-call test with the Hawk itself.)

With the NFL regular season kicking off last night, a lot of us have had football on the brain. We’ve recently covered concussions, NFL Sunday Ticket alternatives, and television streaming devices. Now comes news that Fox will be streaming live NFL games this season through its Fox Sports Go app and online at FoxSportsGo.com. Although this is a good step for fans of NFC teams, it’s a small step for the network. Access still requires a paid television-provider subscription (Dish Network users currently don’t have access), and while this does permit mobile viewing on a tablet, smartphone viewing is not supported. Finally, coverage is restricted to the game your local Fox affiliate is carrying, so if you’re an NFC North fan living in the NFC South, you’re going to need a longer Ethernet cable.

Meanwhile, Comcast is trying to improve the television viewing experience– and maybe keep your eyes off some other, non-Comcast-connected device– with a new, on-screen football app that provides interactive statistical data about players and teams in action. Use of this app requires a Comcast X1 subscription.

CBS and ESPN have been testing “Pylon Cam,” which is what it sounds like, and probably very expensive, so stop using the pylons as golf clubs. (Also from that story, New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin expresses skepticism about the utility of using drones at training camp, and all players’ shoulder pads will contain RFID tags for on-field movement tracking.)

Not to be left out, the NFL itself is expanding its digital offerings. For example, the league’s new video network, NFL Now, will be available on its redesigned mobile app, creatively dubbed NFL Mobile, as well as online and on a number of other popular platforms, all without a subscription. Additionally, all Verizon users can stream Thursday, Monday, and in-market Sunday afternoon games on connected Android and iOS smartphones, but not tablets, at no additional cost. (Sorry, BlackBerry PlayBook users.) Sure, the NFL may be turning into a mind-melting mixture of golden-age prizefighting and professional wrestling, but at least we have little excuse for missing a second of it.

It’s looking like there will be some fresh faces in the 2015 MLB playoffs, and with less than a month to go in the regular season, the race for those final postseason spots is hot. Also hot: all that internal data the Cardinals nabbed from the Astros. Remember that? Baseball is big business, and as big data becomes an increasingly important part of that big business, data industry actors are counseling baseball teams to behave more like sophisticated corporations with intellectual property worth stealing and protect themselves accordingly.

Finally, included in Apple’s live-action data dump community theater show Wednesday was news about a new MLB At Bat app for Apple TV. The app offers plenty of features, including split-screen viewing of two live games and on-screen statistics. An NHL app also is reported to be coming to Apple TV in 2016.

That’s all for this week. While you’re streaming football straight into your domes this weekend, don’t forget to be excellent to each other.


VR’s Sports Invasion is Coming: Part 3

This is the third and final installment of Seth’s look at VR’s role in sports. You can find parts one and two here and here.

Branding & Marketing

Whether it’s a leprechaun tattooed on the bicep of a Boston Celtics fan or a white “G” circled in yellow on a green background on a flag that flaps at your neighbor’s next door during the fall, sports fans are fervent brand supporters. For some franchises, such as the Yankees, Cowboys or Lakers, the loyalty is passed down from generation to generation. For others, like the Oklahoma City Thunder or Washington Nationals, fandom is produced by geographical location or a winning product. For the unfortunate franchises, like the Jacksonville Jaguars or Miami Marlins, building a passionate fan base that regularly splurge on game tickets and scoop up team merchandise can be a rougher go.

And for those unfortunate franchises, creativity and a coolness factor is a must for marketing departments that can’t rely just on a winning team or legendary history to meet monthly metrics. Which is where VR could make a difference, as the Jags have already tried.

Last September, 3D-4U teamed up with the Jaguars and invited fans to watch part of the game in VR via an Oculus Rift. Eric Johnson of re/code, viewed a demo of the product.

The company positions between four and six cameras around the field, and depending on where the action is happening, viewers can change their angle on the game. Each camera is slightly zoomed in while recording video, which makes it possible to look around in the video by turning your head. It was also possible, at least in the demo I saw, to rewind the game and see a big play again, sort of like a cable DVR.

Despite a 3-13 record last year and a 4-12 2013, the Jaguars ranked first overall in fan experience, as voted upon by season ticket holders league wide in the NFL’s Voice of the Fan research campaign. And despite a tie for the third worst record in the league, the Jags ranked 21st in home attendance figures, ahead of the San Diego Chargers, and filling a higher percentage of capacity than the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills, which ranked ahead of them. Jacksonville’s focus on fan engagement and immersion is working.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Kings developed software to pair with Oculus Rifts to help sell premium seating in the yet-to-be-built arena — the Golden 1 Center, expected to open for the 2016-2017 season. The Kings told The Sporting News that they’ve sold all 850 sideline club seats ($200-$300 each) and they expect to sell all remaining courstside seats within the next several weeks. The 16-minute animation allow viewers to see a high-resolution, animated view of the team’s planned arena along with views of sponsorship inventory, suites, club seats, hospitality spaces and seats.

“It is brand new, and we can take it on the road and to someone’s office and bring the new arena to our fans,” Kings President Chris Granger told Sports Business Journal. “Instead of an old-school PowerPoint document, you create an immersive experience. It also allows partners to weigh in to create something with a great sense of understanding.”

Marketing doesn’t only extend to fans. When it comes to big time college athletics, programs need to sell themselves to recruits, too. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim connected with Next Galaxy to create a tool to wow potential Orange players. While NCCA rules prohibit the coach from many possibilities, the idea is to invite an audience into his home, his gym and showcases his trophy room.

“You’ll be able to wear (them) and feel like you’re in Jim’s house,” Barrett Ehrlich, a financial consultant for Next Galaxy, told Syracuse.com.

Joe Favorito, a sports marketing and public relations consultant and former vice president of public relations for the New York Knicks (2001-2006), holds reservations about VR capturing a live sports audience. However, he said that when it comes to marketing, VR will succeed.

“Virtual reality is more of a secondary experience for those that can’t be there, “Favorito said. “[It] will provide a secondary experience that will be invaluable moving forward that will enhance the brand.”

Experiences such as sitting in a race car with Jeff Gordon, slapping a penalty shot against goaltender Henrik Lundqvist or a Sacramento Kings fan in Mumbai touring the Sleep Train Arena.

IBM gave tennis fans a similar experience last year at the Australian Open. IBM’s ReturnServe captured real-time data of the action on the court which was used to create a virtual serve for fans to try and return, utilizing an Oculus Rift headset and a motion-sensitive racquet.

“You’re used to seeing players that are serving at 80, 90, 150 mph,” Elizabeth O’Brien, sports marketing manager for IBM, told The Atlantic. “Here’s what 100 mph serve would look like to you, let’s see if you can return it.”

Challenges

Those within the VR industry only have to look at 3D TV’s demise for cautionary tales to avoid. While much more limited in scope and capabilities than VR’s likely offerings, 3D TV failed in several common denominators it shares with VR that the latter must focus on as building blocks of success. Nail these issues and VR is on its way to mainstream acceptance.

The Headsets

Virtual reality headsets are silly looking, let’s face it. A tux’d up George Clooney sipping a martini couldn’t look cool with this strapped to his head. Remember earlier in the series, even Peter Moore of EA Sports called them dorky. Others have called them creepy. No doubt they’re unattractive. And there’s no legitimate argument against that description.

“People are going to look back at this thing and laugh,” said Brad Allen, executive chairman of NextVR, comparing current headsets to the brick cell phones of the 80s.

The hardware will shrink and become sleek. It has to. Any wearable piece of tech has to look cool to reach the mainstream. Gizmodo summed it up nicely:

Cool gadgets that look dumb are always a bummer. But looking slick, or at least not extremely goofy, is super important for a VR headset and the future of VR in general. Any wearable gadget has to reach with a higher bar of attractiveness simply because consumers have to wear it. That’s something smartwatches are still struggling with. Not to mention Google Glass.

And while no one (in their right mind) is going to wear a VR headset out in public or all the time, virtual reality is already fighting an uphill battle against looking doofy by involving bulky face-puters. We’ve finally gotten to the point where the tech is cool enough that it’s worth wearing one, so the last thing it needs is a layer of gaudy pseudo-chrome to convince people who haven’t given this new generation of virtual reality a try. “Yeah no. That looks stupid.”

Allen envisions an evolution of the headsets similar to cell phones; headsets will continually reduce in size until it reaches a comfortable balance of functionality and fashion. Likely, they’ll be a tad larger than sunglasses.

And they also need to be comfortable. Consumers didn’t want to wear 3D TV glasses around the house, and don’t want to wear uncomfortable headgear for entertainment. For long-term sustainability, VR will need to develop headsets that can be worn for hours at time. Otherwise, they’ll end up in the tech graveyard with the Zip drives and the RAZR phone while software providers lose their grip on customers.

And then there’s the sound. The initial focus, rightfully so, in VR development was on the visuals. But without sound quality to support the 3D visuals, the immersive experience all VR developers aim for falls short. It’s 360 visuals but with 2D audio. And it’s an issue VR-invested companies know they need to address to keep consumers on board. AltspaceVR and Next Galaxy – both introduced earlier in this series – created solutions to a limiting auditory experience.

Next Galaxy created its own headphones, dubbed Ceekars, which were introduced on Indiegogo earlier this year. Marketed as a VR 4D smart headset, the wireless, battery-powered Ceekars aim to add depth and perspective to a 360 virtual environment and complete the ultimate VR experience. When watching a NFL game from the sideline, that vicious hit on the far side of the field that laid the wide receiver out for a minute will sound a lot less fierce than the tackle in front of the user that knocked the quarterback on his tuckus. The headphones also feature haptic feedback, where an embedded actuator applies motions, pressures and vibrations based on sound intensity and range, for yet another level of immersion. So not only will you hear the hit right in front of you, but you’ll feel it, too.

Business Insider spoke with AltspaceVr’s Bruce Wooden, head of developer and community relations, about their auditory offerings.

As I would later see in my demo — where I was standing in a giant mansion highlighted by an enormous television and a half-moon couch, as well as a balcony off to the side — the sound is what brought everything together.

“If you’re near to that screen, it’s loud, you hear everything,” Wooden said. “But if you’re at the balcony, you can’t hear that screen at all. So it’s just like a real party, where you’ll have two people at the screen, you’ll have French guys over there in a circle talking about whatever French guys talk about, there’s a few people on the balcony doing their thing, and it’s just like a house party. You’ll have these natural social interactions, which is exactly what we’re shooting for.”

The audio is what will tie a nice big bow around the VR package to provide an elegant product.

Health Concerns

One of the biggest issues facing VR today is the perception that it’ll make you sick. It’s not a myth. But hardware companies and software developers continue to design VR experiences to avoid a sickening experience.

“People like the demo, they take it home, and they start throwing up,” John Carmack, the chief technology officer at Oculus, said at the Games Developers Conference in March. “The fear is if a really bad VR product comes out, it could send the industry back to the ’90s,” he said.

Dizziness, nausea, sweating and disorientation – dubbed VR sickness – is caused by the inner ear and the eye sending different messages to the brain at the same time. Valve claims to have cracked the code on eliminating the sickness and to be sure, every hardware designer is focused on delivering an experience that avoids reliving that hangover following that first night of Jägermeister.

Researchers at Stanford claim they’ve developed a headset that reduces eye fatigue, nausea, and VR sickness using light-field stereoscope technology which gives the eye a hologram-like experience for each eye to make the experience more natural. This is compared to “flat” stereoscopic headsets where each eye only sees one image, allowing viewers to freely move focus and experience depth in the virtual scene.

“You have a virtual window which ideally looks the same as the real world, ” Gordon Wetzstein, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Stanford, told Hacked, “whereas today you basically have a 2D screen in front of your eye.”

Obviously eye strain is a natural concern when a lit up brick is strapped to one’s forehead. But how will this affect one’s brain? Can neurological damage occur following long-term use? Is it safe for children, whose brains are developing? And finally, if hours of Grand Theft Auto V play on my XBox One plants thoughts of driving up a mountain to avoid bumper-to-bumper traffic, what kind of intense impulses will an immersive experience feed my cerebral cortex?

Most of these questions can’t be answered without significant study. However, the preceding 3D experiences users had can lend some insight. Eye strain and dizziness were common symptoms that were not fixed. Warning labels reminded parents that their child’s brain was still developing, and it’s uncertain how 3D would affect that.

Livescience.com spoke with Mayank Mehta, a neuroscientist at UCLA, about virtual reality’s affect on the brain.

“We don’t really know what’s going on,” Mehta said. “I would say this is reason for caution, not business-as-usual.”

Mehta and colleagues put rats on treadmills in a virtual room, then looked at their brains. While the animal’s behavior appeared normal, they found 60 percent of the neurons shut down. And of those that don’t shut down, many showed abnormal patterns of activity and destroyed an individual rat’s map of space. Mehta admitted the consequences of the neural shutdown are unknown, but it’s worth looking in to if VR becomes such a big part of people’s lives.

Content is King

Imagine the snazziest baseball stadium you can imagine. Of course it’s tech friendly with features and amenities bursting from every seat – not just the box level. Supreme WiFi is abound. The bathrooms are sparkling clean and the concession stands lines are never longer than a TV commercial break. Getting in and out of the parking lot is quick and painless. This is VR hardware. Now imagine this same franchise without any on field talent. Like, none. There’s nothing on the field worth coming to see, since it’s filled with a bunch of Jason Tyners. This is VR without content. A snazzy stadium will bring in fans initially, but it won’t keep them coming back.

“Content is king,” Allen told me during our hour-long interview.

These VR headsets and demos will bring users in, but the content is what’s going to keep them coming back.

“We can immerse the players, and now the question is, what are we going to do with that?” said David Votypka, the senior creative director at Ubisoft-owned Red Storm Entertainment. “The way we answer that determines whether VR becomes its own growing, breathing, living gaming sector, or whether it’ll just be a cool way to play games we already know.”

Equally important for users is the ease in which content is found. Spio said for users to have to scour the web to try and find content is a big turn off for most people. Will a Netflix-like platform emerge as the go-to hub of VR content? Or will users split their time, and money, between multiple platforms, depending on which platform has the VR rights to host each sports league and conference.

And then there’s the importance of progression of content. Experiences can’t grow stale, and content-producers will need to continually offer new options for users to spend a buck on. Outside of live sports, of course.

“Constant, constant reinvention is needed,” sports marketing and public relations consultant Joe Favorito said. “How many times are we going to drive around Daytona? Once? Twice? Do we need to show a crash to get people to come back?”

Demand

Even with the coolest, most comfortable glasses which didn’t require Dramamine or result in Visine eye drops every 45 minutes, 3D TV wasn’t going to succeed because it didn’t vastly improve the way people watched television. It’s tough to get consumers to upgrade their current tech for only a marginally improved experience, which 3D TV arguably offered, at best. For VR to grow a market beyond hardcore gamers, tech nerds, and early-adopting rich guys that want the newest toy, it has to move perception from nice-to-have to must-have.

But how does VR create that must-have demand? It needs to provide an exclusive experience that is convenient and affordable that will make some part of a consumer’s life better.

That means affordable VR hardware. A $400 headset will be tough for many to swallow. Upgrade your personal computer to meet minimum standards headsets will require and now you’re up to $1500. The hardware costs will eventually come down. But initially, adoption will be slow because many won’t invest on potential.

It means no hassles. Nausea, eye strain, and any other health-related issues cannot exist. The headset needs to be comfortable and the content must be easily accessible.

And the content needs be be out of this world.

“What’s the drug?” Favorito asked. “How does this become a must-have drug that I have to have around my team, league or favorite player?”

Realistic Reality

Opinions vary substantially on the timeline of mainstream use of VR. Some think it’ll be next year, after the release of consumer headsets Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus and HTC Vive. Chris Ciaccia, a tech editor with the New York-based business and tech publication The Street, is more conservative.

“I think it’ll stay a niche for another five to seven years,” Ciaccia told Stream Daily. “People are still on the fence of ‘Why do I need another device?’”

But sports is niche. A big niche, but it’s niche. So the timeline moves up. VR in training is already here. Conversely, sports video games in VR may not hit the market until 2019, as the big developers wait to see if VR games are profitable. Sports marketing departments, which have started integrating VR in to campaigns, will continue to create and gauge the cost effectiveness of the tech to push brands and drive sales and fan engagement, increasing use VR annually as long as it proves viable. But the holy grail of it all, live broadcasts in VR of games across all leagues, may still be two or three years away.

To quote Yogi Berra, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

(Header image via Sergey Golyonkin)

TechGraphs’ Monthly Streaming Device List — September 2015

With the NFL season kicking off tomorrow, MLB in the middle of the playoff hunt, and of course college football and other sports already going on, it’s time to kick off a monthly series highlighting some of the best cost efficient ways of catching sports broadcasts and more. From set-top boxes to HDMI dongles to consoles, count on seeing an updated list here at TechGraphs every month. As more and more devices and channels are released, count on this list changing, especially as we approach the holiday season. It feels weird saying “holiday season” in September, but some of my local stores are already posting Black Friday store hours.

There is no shortage of options available, but I’ll be limiting the list by two criteria: they have to be available in the United States, and there has to be separate hardware involved (I’m looking at you, SlingTV, Pluto and Plex). I’ve also specifically chosen Google’s Nexus Player, though there are many more other Android TV boxes. Some streaming options such as WatchESPN, HBO Go and NBC Sports Live Extra require a cable subscription, however all devices can be more than adequate for those looking to cut the cord. Given the rising demand of streaming, particularly among Millenials, all of these devices can play in a role in fulfilling your entertainment needs, be it sports or other stream options.

Streaming Devices
Box/Dongle Opening Price Point Notable Channel/App Compatibility
Amazon Fire Stick $39.00 MLBtv, HBO Go/Now, WatchESPN, FOX Sports Go, Twitch
Amazon Fire TV $99.00 MLBtv, HBO Go/Now, WatchESPN, FOX Sports Go, Twitch
AppleTV $62.99* MLBtv, NBA League Pass, NFL Game Pass†, NHL Gamecenter, MLS, HBO Go/Now, WatchESPN, CBS Sports, MLS Live
Google Chromecast $28.99* MLBtv, HBO Go/Now, NFL Game Pass†, WatchESPN, La Liga TV, 120 Sports, MLS Live
Google Nexus Player $69.99** MLBtv, HBO Go/Now, NFL Game Pass†, WatchESPN, La Liga TV, 120 Sports, MLS Live
Microsoft Xbox One $349.99 MLBtv, NFL Game Pass†, NBA League Pass, NHL Gamecenter,ESL, Major League Gaming, HBO Go
Nvidia Shield $199.99 FOX Sports Go, CBS Sports, HBO Go/Now†, Twitch†
Roku Stick $49.99 MLBtv, NBC Sports Live Extra, WatchESPN, MLS Live, NBA Game Pass, NHL Gamecenter, Golf Channel
Roku 3 Player $99.99 MLBtv, NBC Sports Live Extra, WatchESPN, MLS Live, NBA Game Pass, NHL Gamecenter, Golf Channel
Slingbox M1 $139.99* Any currently subscribed TV channel
Sony Playstation 4 $399.99* MLBtv, HBO Go/Now, NBA Game Pass, NFL Sunday Ticket, NHL Gamecenter


*Amazon Prime price
**Best Buy Online price
†Coming soon
Also of note, the Amazon Fire TV is currently off of the market apparently due to selling the entirety of the stock. There is speculation it could be relaunched in a 4K resolution shortly.

With the national mean cable bill at nearly $100 per month according to Leitchman Research Group, up 39 percent from 2010. The soaring recurring costs of TV make one-time payments for top boxes and streaming services such as MLBtv or NBA League Pass more and more enticing. Between my MLBtv and Fox Soccer 2 Go via Chromecast (plus Netflix and Amazon Prime), I’m personally spending less than the near $1,200 per year that I might with cable. I’m admittedly in the minority as a cord cutter, but our numbers are rising, and for good and simple reason. It makes sense.

(Header image screencapped from my season 2 DVD of The Simpsons, specifically episode 13, Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment)

Five Alternatives to the Pricey NFL Sunday Ticket Package

America’s appetite for football is insatiable.  Between fantasy rosters, office pools, betting the point spread or the purity of football fandom, the NFL continues to attract more and more eyeballs to its product. According to Zap2It, the shield grabbed 202 million viewers in 2014, 80 percent of all television homes and 68 percent of potential viewers in the U.S. It was the second-most watched season of average viewers (17.6 million) behind 2010’s mark of 17.9 million. In the last ten years, viewership has increased 25 percent by almost 4 million viewers. Thursday Night football increased 53 percent in one season.

For many, three free Sunday games, one Monday and one Thursday night game aren’t enough to feed one’s football fix. And for them, there’s DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket. But at the Max package, which includes the Red Zone Channel, a fantasy zone channel and the ability to stream to another device, one’s per-month cost (the season is four months long) is $88.49/month. To put it in perspective, Major League Baseball charges $129.99 for its premium MLB.TV package and the NBA League Pass costs $199.99. Those amounts cover the entire six-month season of each league.

For those without such comfy disposable incomes that still want to suck in every breath of the NFL this season, here are some other options.

Go to a Bar

The obvious alternative is to find a bar with the games on that you want to watch. But is this cost efficient compared to slapping Sunday Ticket Max on your Visa and living off of ramen until spring?

Rudy’s Pub and Grill is a popular spot to watch football in Newport Beach, Calif. Considering a three-and-a-half hour game, I priced out what may be a typical, if not a tad aggressive, bar bill.

$9.95 – Bacon/jalapeno wings
$11.95 – Pub hoagie
$20 – Four domestic beers at $5 a pop

After tax and tip, you’ve just spent $53.57, or 61 percent of the monthly cost for Sunday Ticket Max. And this is for one, maybe two games on one Sunday. It’s a fun day, but not cost efficient.

There are cheaper bar options. One of my favorite hang outs is an Irish bar in downtown Orange, where I grew up. It’s not a sports bar, but they do draw a football crowd on Sundays and it’s a more affordable way to enjoy several hours of football.

At O’Hara’s, a domestic pitcher typically costs $7. Just next door is a tasty, fast Mexican food joint, a sandwich shop and a pizza place. O’Hara’s has no issues bringing food in to the bar, as they don’t provide food themselves. Since we’re going cheap, we’ll give ourselves a $10 limit.

$14 – Two domestic pitchers
$3 – Tip
Food from next door  – $10
Total – $27

At half the cost of a Sunday Funday at Rudy’s Pub and Grill, a day at O’Hara’s still is 31 percent of that damn DirecTV product. For 16 weeks (a couple Sundays away from the bar and attending a family member’s birthday), you’ve just spent $432 to watch Sunday football, or, $78.06 more than it would’ve cost Sunday Ticket Max for the season.

Of course, skipping O’Hara’s would mean missing out on the sciatica caused by the stiff booths. And since you have an actual lock on your bathroom door at home, there’s no chance of a stranger walking in on you peeing. That’s what the extra $78 buys you. Experiences!

Cheaper Sunday Ticket Options

Regular Sunday Ticket, which doesn’t include the Red Zone channel or other perks, runs $62.99 a month ($251.94 total). For college students, that cost drops to $24.99 a month, or $99 total.

Order the Sunday Ticket To Go, which streams only to a tablet, phone or laptop, and the monthly charge is $49.99.

Cost Sharing

Sunday Ticket without the Red Zone Channel is like Nevada without Las Vegas – what’s the point? So grab some friends and split the cost of the Max package. For three of you, the cost is $29.50 for a month ($117.98 for season). Add in one more and you’re at $22.13 a month ($88.49 a season).

Watching football is fun. Watching football with a friend is more fun. And watching football with multiple friends is even more fun. So not only do you save some cash, but you’re having more fun. It’s science. And you don’t have to worry about tipping your server at 40 percent because you’re smitten by her blue eyes and dimpled cheeks.

NFL Game Pass

There’s two ways to go about Game Pass. For $24.75 a month ($99 for the season) you can watch every game, not including the Sunday night game. The kicker is the games won’t unlock until after the last game of the afternoon has finished. But you do get access to the All 22 camera and you can block scores from other games. And maybe brunch with the in-laws, church with grandma or spending time with your kids is a healthy and productive thing.

If you live outside the U.S., however, you can use Game Pass for live viewing. This is great for fans who had to move for work or family, but still want to watch NFL games live at some ungodly hour. Of course, the more nefarious can use this option and couple it with an IP spoofing service or VPN and watch live streaming in the good old U.S.A., but that will take a little more research on your part. And any VPN service that offers decent streaming bandwidth is going to cost, adding to the monthly fee.

Stream Illegally

It’s the internet. This is what the internet does. Google search or hunt around Reddit and you’ll find what you’re looking for.


 

So, the breakdown:

NFL Sunday Viewing Cost Breakdown
Viewing option Cost per month
Sunday Ticket Max $88.49
Sunday Ticket $62.99
Sunday Ticket To Go $49.99
Bar $108.00
ST Cost Share x 3 $29.50
ST Cost Share x 4 $22.13
NFL Game Pass $24.75
NFL Game Pass Euro $34.75
Stream Illegally Just your soul

 

If you’re looking for the best value, get three friends together, split the cost of DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket Max package and persuade the friend with the best TV to accommodate. Don’t leave a mess and toss in a six-pack once a month for the host. After all, he’s cleaning up your urine on the toilet seat.

Image courtesy of Mike Reynolds 


Blast Motion, Easton Collaborate to Produce Easton Power Sensor

The Easton Power Sensor, produced through the partnership between wearable sensor manufacturer Blast Motion and baseball equipment manufacturer Easton, was recently released. The sensor was the result of a collaboration first announced in January 2014, and has been in the works since before the official launch of the Blast Baseball Replay.

The product, which will go on the market this fall, is largely a re-branding of the existing Blast Baseball Replay sensor. For the first time, however, Blast will expand its offerings to support Android devices. Donovan Prostrollo, Blast Motion’s senior director of marketing, says that current users will also benefit from future software changes that will come out of this partnership.

“There has been a lot of infrastructure work that has gone on behind the scenes,” Prostrollo said. “We will be providing a free software upgrade to Blast Baseball Replay customers, allowing them to gain all the benefits of the Easton Power Sensor and the new features that are on the way.”

Now that the sensor has been officially released, Easton plans to incorporate it into its traveling Hit Lab, which combines video capture and Trackman radar systems to help players learn more about their swings.

“[The Hit Lab] offers an unmatched opportunity for players to experience the science of hitting,” said Henry Fitzgerald, a member of Easton’s performance sports group. “The Easton Power Sensor will have a central role in this.”

Plans to further improve sensor performance are currently being discussed, but Fitzgerald was understandably reluctant to divulge specific improvements.

“Our R&D department is always searching for ways to improve our bats and any relevant technology,” Fitzgerald said.

The announcement coincided with the start of the 2015 Little League World Series, which ended this past Sunday. As the official equipment sponsor of the event, Easton brought the Power Sensor to Williamsport (shown above) to demonstrate its capabilities for the second straight year.

“It’s exciting to see the kids when they get their hands on the sensor and see their metrics,” Prostrollo said. “By combining the science of hitting with innovative technology, we’re able to give players of all ages and skill levels the insights they need to improve their swing.”

Like Major League Baseball, Little League Baseball currently does not allow wearable senors like the Easton Power Sensor on the field during competitions. But Fitzpatrick says Easton has been lobbying for these groups to lift this ban.

“The sensor as it is today does not offer any sort of performance advantage,” he said. “It’s simply an attachment.”

Like the Blast Baseball Replay, the Easton Power sensor is driven by a “tactical-grade” inertial measurement unit (IMU), which combines more precise sensors, more processing power, and on-the-fly calibration to improves the device’s accuracy and consistency. Both the Blast and Easton apps revolve around video, typically captured by setting the device on a tripod and automatically clipped so that only the events of interest are included. Users can view their swings in adaptive slow-motion, which automatically adjusts the playback speed around key moments in the swing. In an earlier interview, Prostrollo said Blast Motion’s focus on video allows Blast’s Baseball Replay — now re-branded as the Easton Power Sensor — to give users insights into more than just bat path alone.

“Because we approached it from the natural motion capture side, we knew that it was going to be a lot more about what is your entire body doing,” Prostrollo said. “The metrics are really only half the story. You really need to put that in context, you need to make it personal.”


Preventing Concussions in the Next Generation of Football Players

Concussions are bad.

Nobody has ever really disputed this, but over the last decade, it has become increasingly apparent that repetitive head injuries, seen particularly often in football, can lead to significant long-term medical effects.

The “concussion debate” has largely taken place on the professional stage, from the controversies generated by League of Denial to Will Smith’s forthcoming feature film Concussion and beyond. Yet the true impact is being felt across the nation, as schools and innovators work to protect the more than 1,000,000 young adults who play college and high school football each season.

This fall, new devices large and small are being tested to reduce the frequency and effect of football-related concussions.

The Dartmouth Dummy

Five years ago, the Dartmouth Big Green football program eliminated athlete-on-athlete tackling during practices. Cutting out these collisions in favor of tackle sleds and dummies cuts down on injuries and concussions–which makes sense–but made it harder to actually practice tackling against a moving target–which also makes sense.

Enter the MVP–the “Mobile Virtual Player”.

Designed by two Dartmouth engineering students, the MVP is a remote-controlled, human-sized dummy that resembles a cross between the Headless Horseman and a Weeble. Less bone-crushing than an actual human, the MVP allows for relatively realistic tackling simulations while significantly decreasing the risk of head and neck injuries.

Two MVPs were deployed in August, with a third on the way, and the experiment has received the attention of major media, tech blogs–and, reportedly, a few NFL teams.

New Helmets InSite

This doesn’t do much to prevent contact during games–and, as long as there’s tackling in football, there’s only so much you can do–but some new tools are being developed to limit the effects of major hits when they do happen.

The sporting company Riddell is in the process of bringing a new line of helmets to high schools around the country. The SpeedFlex helmets, equipped with Riddell’s InSite Impact Response System, use six built-in accelerometers to measure the individual and combined force of every impact a player receives. This data is sent live to a laptop on the sidelines, where trainers and staff can monitor players for potential danger signs.

As programs continue to adopt the system, one trainer says, this data will itself be useful for better understanding what leads to football brain injuries.

Watch Your Mouth

In fact, before long it might not even take a special helmet to easily detect potential concussions. Smithsonian reports on FITGuard, a mouth guard co-created by two Arizona State grads–one a veteran of the rugby team.

Like InSite, FITGuard uses sensors to measure hits to the head and can transfer data to a nearby computer. If FITGuard sees any signs of danger, though, it simply lights up the player’s mouth using LEDs. FITGuard is scheduled for release in early 2016.

Image courtesy of fitguard.me

Image courtesy of fitguard.me

These tools aren’t without their caveats. A recent Stanford study, for example, found that some currently existing concussion-measuring devices (particularly helmets) can significantly mismeasure the actual force of impact.

Nevertheless, with room for improvement and no end to the concussion crisis in sight, technology like this can still have great potential to help protect our next generation of football players.

(Featured Image via Dartmouth)