The thing about the baseball-viewing experience is that it's always evolving. Almost a century ago, it was radio only. Then came television, then color television and high-definition television. Then internet streaming via MLB.TV changed the environment in 2002, and in '08, it was the MLB.com At Bat app, one of the original apps available when Apple's App Store came online in 2008. Alongside it all, for most of the 21st century, has been the Gameday app, which shows you live boxscores, pitch-by-pitch locations and more on your computer and your mobile phone. More recently, we're into the third season of Statcast™, which has opened up an entirely new world of how we can consume the game.
So what's next? "What's next" has arrived, as MLB.com At Bat VR has made its public debut. It's the first complete live-game sports experience in Virtual Reality, which means that not only can you watch real-time video (or any archived game back to 2015), you can do it in an immersive virtual experience.
"It's another improvement, an advancement, in what we regard to be the best app in sports," said Major League Baseball Commissoner Rob Manfred said. "It's something we think our fans will be excited about."
It's easy to see why. When I got a preview of the experience during a recent Dodgers-Giants game, my first reaction was, "Do you mind if I spend the next two hours in your office and watch the entire game?" And that wasn't just about the Clayton Kershaw vs. Johnny Cueto matchup of aces. It was about the realization that watching the game in VR added an entirely new layer of interest, simply because of what the technology is capable of.
The main screen in front of you shows the live video -- like traditional MLB.TV, you can choose which feed you prefer -- and to the sides, you get the play-by-play and the box score. If, like many of us, you watch games with the video on your television and Gameday on your phone or tablet, this combines the experience into one.
But what really sets this apart is the 3D strike zone, which is presented with you in the catcher's position, watching the pitch come in toward you. If you've watched any baseball broadcast in the past decade, you're familiar with the strike-zone tracker, a flat rectangle which shows dots where each pitch crosses the plate. At Bat VR takes that idea to its logical next step, making the strike zone three dimensional, color-coded by the hot zones of the current hitter, and in addition to showing where the pitch crosses the plate, it shows a heat trail of the actual path in doing so.
By using the enclosed physical remote -- which you can "see" in the virtual world, branded with the logo of your favorite team -- you can "touch" any of the pitches and see relevant information, like velocity and pitch type. You can scroll back through any pitch in the game, or go back to previous games and do the same thing. You can also make the live broadcast full-screen, curved almost like being in an IMAX theatre, except it follows you as your head moves, and you can go through statistics and standings, but where it really stands out is in adding a new and interesting way to allow the enormous amount of real-time data that's collected to be presented in a visually appealing way.
(We should note here that while the live-game experience stands out, it's worth your time to check out one of the prerecorded 360-degree videos, particularly the one from the opening of Atlanta's SunTrust Park. Look up, look down, look all around, as though you were there.)
So it's fun, it's new, and it's interesting, but what was probably most notable was that it's easy. If you've never had a virtual-reality experience (as I had not), then it's fair for you to wonder if the effort of learning how this works would be more trouble than its worth. But if you've ever used a smartphone, or played a video game, you know how to use this. You hold the physical remote, you point, you click and that's it. The interface is familiar, and it acts the way you expect it to. The learning curve is roughly on the scale of "30 seconds," and most of that is simply realizing you're in VR.
And as it turns out, it's easier to access than you might think. If you have a mobile phone that supports the Daydream VR app and an active MLB.TV account, then all you need is the Daydream View headset and you're good to go. Slide your Daydream-enabled phone into the headset, pick up the included remote control and get busy. Whatever you can get with MLB.TV on desktop or mobile, you can get with At Bat VR as well, but in an entirely new way.