Baseball Meets Internet Of Things: Bye, Bad Umpires?

Will sensors come to bats and gloves? Bad umpiring could be a thing of the past if baseball equipment becomes a part of the Internet of Things.

Michael Endler, Associate Editor,

April 5, 2013

5 Min Read
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To baseball aficionados, it's a frustratingly familiar chain of events: the pitcher winds up and hurls his best curveball; the batter holds back as the ball abruptly drifts; the umpire, unaware of the ball's last-second shift, calls a strike; and millions of fans scream at their TVs for the blown call.

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.

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. The fan experience, even when it occurs at home in front of the TV, is also primed to change. "Players are experiencing the plays and viewers are viewing them," Jafari said, "but how could we provide a more real-world experience for the fans?"

A simple example, he suggested, could involve the emerging "second screen" trend, in which spectators watch the main action in person or on a TV while also browsing supplementary information on a laptop, tablet or smartphone. Raw data collected from sensors could be routed through Hadoop or some other system designed to make the content useful, and then delivered almost instantly, and perhaps in a personalized form, to the viewer.

Extending this theme, Jafari suggested more immersive experiences could be in the cards as well. If a catcher's glove records data related to the impact of a ball, for example, then specialized gloves for fans could, by selectively applying and reducing pressure on the user's hand, recreate that impact in living rooms around the world. Such a product might be gimmicky for some but the concept demonstrates how viewers could engage tactilely and bodily with their favorite sports, elevated from passive spectators to pseudo participants.

To describe the diversity of vicarious experiences fans could one day enjoy, Jafari alluded to the changes the iPhone brought to the smartphone market. "Apple created this platform and made it open," he said. "That let developers create their own apps, and to unleash capabilities." He said the same technique could be applied to sports, noting that "if the infrastructure is in place, millions of smart individuals out there can think about how to use it. Let's build these sensors and build a platform, and then let developers create that experience for the users."

Fans might be interested in the moment of impact between bat and ball, he said, "or perhaps if it's a rainy day and the player cannot run as fast, they could augment that reality and provide it to the user."

Still, before creative developers can make their marks, several challenges must be addressed. Jafari noted that sensors must be instrumented such that players aren't aware of the tech they're wearing and using. Maintenance is another issue. Thousands of sensors could be inserted in a bat, or throughout the field, but once the tech is installed, how will it be serviced? If typical batteries are involved, Jafari said such massive sensor deployments are "hard to imagine."

One possible solution is to eschew batteries in favor of energy generated by the athlete's body. Current sensors only capture a fraction of the power needed to make such an approach viable but Jafari stated that the current pace of technology should provide more effective options in the near future. Baseball might not be quite ready yet, but it's likely only a matter of time until today's viewing and officiating rituals become, like the infamous Houston Astros uniforms from the 70s, a mere memory on the path to something better.

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About the Author(s)

Michael Endler

Associate Editor,

Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 and, pending the completion of a long-gestating thesis, will hold an MA in Cinema Studies from San Francisco State.

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