Virtual reality seems set to impact on pretty much all aspects of our lives in the near future, so it’s no surprise to learn that professional sports is also in the sights of technologists.

One of the first up to the plate is professional baseball, with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and IT service provider NTT DATA this month announcing the development of a virtual reality (VR) batting coaching system. The Eagles are planning to incorporate the system – the first of its kind to have been developed with the full participation of a professional baseball team – into their official training regimen from next season.

Rakuten Eagles player Toshiaki Imae tries out the virtual reality Baseball batting coaching system

Rakuten Eagles player Toshiaki Imae tries out the VR coaching system

The system features eye-popping technology. Wearing a head-mounted display, batters are presented with a three-dimensional 360-degree computer-generated rendering of the view from the batter’s box – complete with pitcher’s mound, bases and stands in the background – and they also get to choose which real-life pitcher – and even pitch – they want to face.

During a recent test, Rakuten Eagles batting ace – and 2005 and 2010 Japan Series MVP – Toshiaki Imae donned his display and then casually cued up teammate and pitcher Takahiro Norimoto. One of the features of the new system is that the pitch data is real – NTT Data used real game video footage of Norimoto pitches to capture and then recreate their trajectories. This means Imae doesn’t just select a pitch’s type – fastball, slider, curveball – but also its speed and accuracy. He decided to take a look at a 155km/h fastball that flies just slightly above the strike zone – one that in a real game could be safely left. Almost instantly, video footage of Norimoto winding up on the mound for that very pitch was spliced into Imae’s view and then zoom, there it went, safely by him. (Ball!)

He was also able to take repeated looks at Norimoto’s trickier pitches – his sliders and curveballs – to understand exactly how they behave in the air.

It’s this ability to provide repeated looks at real-life pitches that has professional players giving this new system a thumbs up.

Batters can select which pitcher and which pitches to face.

Batters can choose to face pitches that were actually thrown by real-life pitchers in real-life games.

“The head-mounted display gives players the advantage of being able to practice receiving a variety of pitches. This gives them more confidence, and the readiness to face any game,” Imae commented.

The system can also be updated during a season so that recent pitches by particular players can be added – potentially giving batters the ability to preview the precise kinds of pitches they are likely to experience in real game situations.

“There are very few cases where VR technology is used on an ongoing basis for the training of professional athletes,” noted Toshiyuki Hayashida, Head of Life Digital Division at NTT DATA. “With the collaboration of Rakuten Baseball, Inc., we’ve been able to produce a system whose quality is good enough to develop professional baseball players’ skills throughout the entire season, utilizing data that is constantly updated.”

The batter is able to study the trajectory of the pitch.

Batters can also study the trajectories of the pitches they face.

The Rakuten Golden Eagles were involved in the development and trialing of the system – having provided video footage of its players and advised on user experience – and they are now the first team to sign up to use it.

“The Rakuten Eagles are keen to deploy the latest technology in the field of sport, and we’re happy to participate in these trials. Following conclusion of the trials, we have decided to start using the system from next season,” said Akira Ueda, Director of the Baseball Team Strategy Office, Rakuten Baseball, Inc. “We can expect the team to improve on a continuous basis, as the system allows the VR content to be updated as the baseball season progresses.”

And NTT DATA is currently on the lookout for new clients, too – possibly beyond Japan. The system, it says, can also be deployed in other leagues. If all goes well, this system might just be headed for the majors.