Major Leagues Find Secret Weapon in VR Training

by Michael Kaplan

If you make a living hurling fastballs, prepare for a rough season.

Troy Tulowitzki from the Toronto Blue Jays trying the Baseball simulator at CES earlier this year.
Troy Tulowitzki from the Toronto Blue Jays trying the baseball simulator at CES earlier this year.

With the help of EON Sports VR, Major League Baseball teams are setting up virtual reality batting cages. They let hitters hone their swings with unprecedented accuracy, without wearing out pitchers or worrying about spring downpours.

Despite its star-studded customer base, EON Sports is still a five-person startup, based out of Kansas City. It’s led by Brendan Reilly, a former college basketball coach who wanted to find a better way to teach and train athletes under conditions that just can’t be found outside of a real game.

And he’s found a market.

On the high end, certain major league teams, which have sworn him to secrecy, have paired EON Sports’ software with banks of projectors and sophisticated motion-tracking gear to create hyper-realistic virtual batting cages. Players can experience the gamut of pitches they’d encounter in a real game — and the flight of each virtual ball can be tracked by coaches and players.

Of course, if you’re a science-fiction fan, none of this will be unfamiliar. The VR experience is something more akin to a Star Trek holodeck than an old fashioned batting cage. And it’s an experience that will send even the most athletic amateurs reeling.

A still from the training app showing Jason Giambi teaching hitting.

“It’s pretty surreal how hard it is,” Reilly admits. “My developers like throwing 98 mile-per-hour fastballs along with 85 mile-per-hour changeups to watch me strike out against major leaguers.”

Pitch Perfect with NVIDIA Quadro

To achieve convincing hyper-realism, EON Sports uses the Quadro visual computing platform. Quadro professional graphics provide photorealistic representation of colors on ultra-high-resolution displays for a real-time VR experience. And Quadro Sync communicates between up to four Quadro GPU cards and up to 16 displays or projectors, making a multi-screen, multi-projector experience seamless.

EON Sports’ simulators — which help football players perfect their plays, as well — are also used by the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, UCLA, Ole Miss, Syracuse University and the University of Kansas. The software can be run with a setup as simple as a laptop equipped with an NVIDIA Quadro professional GPU and a projector.

In the works is Project OPS, a smartphone app that amateurs can hook up to a headset. It will let players fine tune their strike zone awareness, pitch recognition skills and even their swing.

So, whether you’re hitting in a holodeck secreted away in a Major League Baseball team’s training facility or swinging away with a headset attached to your face, EON Sports promises an experience that can’t be replicated, even in a batting cage.

That’s because the very best pitchers are far cannier than any pitching machine. While pitchers will throw plenty of pitches that are all but unhittable to the rest of us in practice, they save their best stuff for when it counts.

“You’ll never get a pro pitcher throwing their best pitches during batting practice. They don’t want to tear up their arms,” Reilly says.

Makes sense: and with a new generation of VR-trained hitters about to be unleashed, they’ll have a better reason than ever to save their best stuff for game day.

The MLB season kicks off on April 4, the same day as the start of the NVIDIA GPU Technology Conference, where EON Sports and other professional VR users and developers — like, Jaunt VR, Lucasfilm and Audi — will host talks and installations in our VR Village.