But the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the world's largest technical professional association, plans to make poor baseball officiating a thing of the past. The group's research is in the early stages, so don't expect to see the Major Leagues make any changes this season, but in the not-too-distant future, fans could be treated not only to error-free umpires but also a host of interactive experiences that redefine the concept of "spectator" sports.
In the IEEE's view, this new-and-improved breed of baseball will spring from the Internet of Things (IoT), which describes the increasingly popular notion that society can harvest and apply data in previously unthinkable ways by connecting everyday objects to the Internet and equipping them with sensors.
[ Internet-connected objects range far and wide. Read At London Startup, Internet Of Things Meets Whiskey Bottles. ]
IoT applications have typically included smartphone apps that use geo-location sensors to provide useful information, connected vehicles that detect other cars in order to avoid collisions, and power grids that can perceive usage fluctuations and automatically apply changes to conserve energy. But the Internet of Things can include virtually any object that could become more useful when connected. Cisco anticipates there will be 50 billion such devices by 2020, up from around 10 billion today, and it's likely that sensor-equipped baseball bats, gloves and balls will be among the new items that join the fold.
In an interview with InformationWeek, Roozbeh Jafari, an IEEE senior member and assistant professor at the University of Texas Dallas, said that connected baseball equipment, possibly in combination with sensors and transmitters located throughout the stadium, could deliver much more precise verdicts for frequently contested situations such as foul balls, stolen bases, or pitches at the edge of the strike zone. Whether the improvements will stop fans from hyperventilating is unknown, of course, but the new technology should be accurate to an extent that human observers simply cannot match, even with tools such as automatic replay.
Officiating is just the start of the possibilities. Jafari said sensors also could be used to improve techniques during training. Connected bats, for example, could measure anything from a player's posture to his swing speed to how firmly he grips the bat. Combined with the proper big data algorithms, these measurements could pinpoint small imperfections in a player's form and lead to more effective training strategies.
Similar approaches could be applied to better understand sports injuries. Baseball isn't known as a contact sport but Jafari noted that researchers are currently embedding sensors in football helmets -- or in the case of an ongoing Stanford University study, in an athlete's mouthpiece -- in order to ascertain how bodily trauma occurs on the playing field, and how it can be more effectively prevented or treated.