Rays among teams using new virtual reality technology

Virtual reality gives hitters a preview of the pitchers they’ll be facing with a stadium backdrop.
Virtual reality gives hitters a preview of the pitchers they’ll be facing with a stadium backdrop.
Published July 3, 2016

Brendan Reilly thought he was doing good work as an administrative member of the Illinois State basketball coaching staff, spending eight hours a day editing game video into scouting DVDs for the Redbirds players.

"Then I'd watch them walk out of the room and half the guys would throw them in the trash," Reilly said. "Then we'd play Wichita State, and they would run the exact play I was trying to tell them about. So I was like, there's got to be a better way. There's got to be a better way."

Over the next several years Reilly finally found not just a better way but a totally new, innovative, evolving and literally game-changing way.

Through virtual reality video, Eon Sports VR is altering how teams, including the Rays and previously the Bucs, and individual athletes train and prepare. Its system provides more sophisticated data while reducing the time commitment and physical toll of practice.

"Virtual reality," Reilly said, "is the great equalizer."

Eon is on the leading edge of the burgeoning sports virtual reality industry, where constantly evolving advances in data and technology, especially in terms of mobility and interactivity, are integral.

The products, some of which can be accessed simply with an app and goggles that fit around a cell phone, can be divided roughly into three areas:

• What has gotten the most attention is the work with major-league teams, where scouting reports on opposing pitchers are brought to virtual life. They have done less sophisticated work in football with computer-generated playbooks and 360-degree video of pre-snap reads for quarterbacks. And they have provided virtual scouting programs for European pro soccer and rugby teams.

"It's very clear those front offices are going to do everything they can to give their guys a competitive edge," Reilly said.

• Eon also has ventured into youth sports training with a program called Project OPS, fronted by former big-leaguer Jason Giambi, that focuses on strike zone awareness and pitch recognition in something of an advanced video game form.

• And what is just launching, with the potential for explosive and exponential growth, are fan experiences, providing, for example, the virtual opportunity to run out of the pregame tunnel with your favorite football team or be on the field for batting practice or on a court shooting 3-pointers, and with friends.

Facing a virtual pitcher

The Rays are one of a "handful" of teams — they won't allow Reilly to say for competitive reasons, though the Pirates and Indians reportedly are among others — that have invested six figures in the iCube training system, which allows hitters a virtual preview of pitchers they will be facing.

The cube — a 10-foot square, set up behind the batting cage at the Trop — includes a video screen that shows the requested pitcher (and stadium backdrop), allowing the hitter to experience the delivery, release point and velocity as well as a detailed read on the spin and break on the pitches.

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Hitters can get as specific as they want — requesting, for example, David Price, pitching at the Trop, elevated fastballs, outer half of the plate — with data, acquired from the teams, updated nightly to reflect changes, and past performance also logged.

There is also a virtual home plate for the hitters to see where the pitches went. Still being refined, which some players say is needed, is the tracking technology for "hitting" the virtual pitches.

"You will never replace onfield work, you've got to do that, but there are certain things like scouting reports you can enhance," Reilly said. "I'm sure 15 years ago it was pen and paper, then it went to pen and paper with video. Now you can supplement that with, 'Here is what it's going to be like when you face him.' That is where we can really drive innovation."

Not all Rays players use the system, some preferring to stick with their standard methods. Some Rays who experimented earlier in the season haven't gone back. But those who do find it quite helpful.

"Baseball is the only sport where nobody practices at full speed," outfielder Steven Souza Jr. said. "They're trying to get as close as they can, and this is one of the ways you can get as close as you can. I don't know how far they can take it, but it's really nice to go in and see things like arm slot and pretty close to the (velocity) and the movement."

Reilly said for the most part, "the younger guys adopt it a little more. And that has nothing to do with baseball, but everything to do with human behavior."

Some teams have also integrated the system into their minor-league training. And Eon is looking to expand its deals with individual players who want access to the data remotely, although with less detailed presentation and interactivity, on their phones or iPads, similar to how teams provide them regular video.

Bucs choose another route

Eon's first products were for football teams, focusing on helping quarterbacks, and it made a big splash last summer by signing on with the Bucs for its initial NFL venture.

Both the team and company cited the potential benefits of the Sidekiq system to accelerate the learning curve for rookie quarterback Jameis Winston by using the virtual reality playbook, where computer-generated avatars "bring those X's and O's to life."

But a year later, they have broken their huddle.

Eon is shifting focus from football, concentrating on baseball training and growing its fan experience business, at least until it can develop a more advanced product. (Reilly said they are still working with several of the Division I college teams that signed on, including UCLA, Ole Miss, Syracuse, Kansas and Purdue.)

And the Bucs have moved on to another undisclosed company, declining to comment on the situation.

Reilly said he had "only positives" about the relationship with the Bucs and — noting, correctly, Winston "had a good year, didn't he?" — implied they did their part in helping him.

"The value and the need they had at the time fit what we could offer quite well," Reilly said. "He had to learn the playbook and all the defenses. Unless they were going to hire 22 actors to act out these plays, the ability to computerize that worked really, really well for what they were trying to do from a training perspective."

The other football product Eon offered was a 360-degree video capture of actual practice, providing quarterbacks with the view of each player's role and reaction to a specific play. But other companies also provide that service, and Reilly said Eon would rather move on.

"360 capture and playback is kind of ubiquitous," Reilly said. "It's kind of what I call 'Best Buy VR.' It's a pretty simple entry level version. So our value proposition there is minimized compared to what the market is doing."

Translating virtual into reality

The youth baseball package, which sells for $199 including the headset, is focused on strike zone awareness and pitch recognition, with a few tips and lessons from Giambi interspersed, for players 8 and up.

Knowing kids already are playing advanced video games, Eon tried to find a niche between edification and entertainment using the virtual reality platform with game-like speed, action and stadium backdrops.

"It's how do we make something like strike zone awareness fun?" Reilly said. "It's a process that can be really boring, that no kid wants to do. It's like learning in basketball how to dribble. Everyone wants to shoot 3s, but you have to learn how to dribble to get to the point where you can shoot 3s."

Fans in on the action

The fan experience area is clearly the area with the most growth potential — and endless possibilities including the ability to bring several people to the same virtual place.

"Put it this way," Reilly said, "you can experience the coolest experiences within all sports — and you can do it with your friends."

Just in the past month, Eon has signed deals with several undisclosed ACC and Big Ten schools, with announcements, Reilly said, to coincide with the kickoff to football season.

It also has signed up some European soccer teams and is talking to teams, and league offices, in the other pro sports to navigate myriad complex rights-holder relationships and sort out what they can do.

Reilly's plan?

As much as they can.

"As a fan, what's the one thing you always want?" Reilly said. "You want to be close to the action. You want to be part of the team. So we're able to deliver that with our partners."

Through virtual and augmented reality and 360-degree video, Eon can put a fan pretty much anywhere — running onto the field, taking batting practice, shooting free throws. The possibilities seem endless, as do the tie-ins, as Reilly mentioned links to merchandise and ticket sales.

"What's beautiful about sports is that you have unlimited stories to tell," Reilly said. "We can put you on the field, we can put you in the game. We can give you these experiences that are pretty unbelievable, that I think fans are going to really like."

Future appears bright

Reilly, 29, was somewhat of a pioneer in 2009 when he started pitching the bosses at Eon Reality, a worldwide virtual reality software company that had done mostly training and work in the aerospace, defense and oil and gas fields, about branching into sports. By 2013, Eon Sports VR was its own company, with Reilly as CEO.

"I was a college basketball coach," Reilly said. "I was like, listen, you guys are doing some amazing things in oil and gas and elsewhere, but you have no idea the value this can bring. …

"Their founders were like, you're just crazy enough that you just might be able to make this work."

The business is always changing, especially since the technology is constantly improving. That includes the display devices, such as the Microsoft HoloLens, which even a techie like Reilly says "will blow your mind," and the packaging of the data given advances in augmented reality that allow, in simple terms, a combination of real and virtual elements.

"The things you can do with the software," Reilly said, "are quite incredible."

Marc Topkin can be reached at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.