Villanova Faculty Making Batting Practice a Virtual Reality

Villanova faculty making batting practice a virtual reality

Mark Jupina, PhD, assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is leading a new collaborative effort involving faculty and students in the Colleges of Engineering and Liberal Arts and Sciences that will provide players on the Villanova baseball team the opportunity to take virtual batting practice, whether it be in the University’s virtual reality CAVE environment, or wearing head-mounted displays such as the Oculus Rift or Microsoft HoloLens.

The project, PITCHvr, uses Major League Baseball pitch data available from the PITCHf/x database. From the PITCHf/x data parameters, the engineers use a model to recreate the motions of a pitched ball—including the path, velocity, orientation and spin of the baseball—from the batters’ perspective. In the virtual or augmented realm, there are no limits as to how the training experience can be varied and analyzed. For example, the use of sound can be added to help train a batter’s foveal vision. Dr. Jupina’s algorithm generates a unique audio signature for each virtual pitch created. When this audio is played along with the virtual pitch, the audio helps to train an individual’s eyes in tracking the motion of the baseball.

In cooperation with professor and chair Thomas Toppino, PhD, and professor Gerald Long, PhD, in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, the developers also plan to eventually use existing neurofeedback and eye tracking technology along with their own visual feedback designs to assist the user in generating the correct predictive eye saccades during dynamic visual acuity training.

Dr. Jupina says, “Virtual batting practice will allow batters to see more pitches and hone their pitch recognition abilities, while at the same time provide an opportunity for the Villanova research community to design new systems, which will lead to a better understanding of how to further enhance a player’s vision training experience.”

Working closely with Villanova’s head baseball coach Kevin Mulvey ’13 CLAS, a former standout pitcher for the University who reached the major leagues, has provided Dr. Jupina with input on the experience and how it could impact his players.

“The opportunity to work alongside Dr. Jupina and his team as he put together the amazing experience that PITCHvr offers has been incredible,” says Mulvey. “Being able to answer questions, add input and enhance the overall experience from the baseball side of things was fun and exciting. Thanks to Mark’s efforts, our student-athletes are now able to experience something that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them had it not been for his willingness to include our program from the start.”

This spring, the Villanova baseball team began vision training in the CAVE with 3-D animations of MLB pitching. Players were able to step into the CAVE and, in a virtual environment, work on their pitch recognition skills against some of MLB’s top pitchers such as Justin Verlander. Beyond this, realistic pitches of tomorrow can be generated by PITCHvr where even faster fast balls and nastier sliders, cutters and splitters will be seen by the players.

Dr. Jupina and his collaborators plan to add more stadium backgrounds, as well as more realistic animations of pitching avatars. The last step will be to capture the bat’s motion live during an actual swing utilizing new imaging technology and incorporate a virtual batted ball’s motion into the animation. Thereby, batters will be able to obtain metrics such as launch angle and velocity of the batted ball, distance traveled, etc.

A true multidisciplinary effort, in addition to the psychology faculty, PITCHvr has engaged Computing Sciences faculty Frank Klassner, PhD, professor and director of Villanova's Center of Excellence in Enterprise Technology; assistant professor Edward Kim, PhD; and Andrew Grace, who offer expertise in computer animation and virtual reality. Also involved from the College of Engineering are Edmond Dougherty, Engineering Entrepreneurship director and president of Novation Tech LLC, who has brought to the table his knowledge of artificial intelligence and embedded systems; and Electrical and Computer Engineering professor Ahmad Hoorfar, PhD, who specializes in antennas and radio frequency sensing and imaging.

PITCHvr has garnered media coverage in several news outlets:

WIRED

Why It's Almost Impossible for Fastballs to Get Any Faster

Philadelphia Inquirer

Taking a swing at virtual reality: how Villanova baseball is using tech to improve at the plate

6abc (WPVI-TV)

Baseball goes high-tech on Villlanova's campus