'Virtual fans' will fill MLB grandstands, cheer and boo teams during Fox baseball broadcasts
The traditional in-person baseball fan will not be present at ballparks around the country due to the coronavirus pandemic. But with the innovation of augmented reality, viewers at home might not notice.
Fox Sports, in its 25th year of broadcasting Major League Baseball games, announced Thursday the use of "virtual fans" during its telecasts throughout the 60-game regular season that began with Opening Day on Thursday and into the postseason.
Customizable fans will appear on broadcasts starting Saturday made possible with a virtual, augmented reality software called Pixotope and Brooklyn-based tech company Silver Spoon Animation, according to a Fox spokesperson.
Silver Spoon Animation, a real-time animation and virtual production company, will be doing the heavy-lifting operating on-site technology and handling the creative elements to this project. SMT, a sports technology company, will operate four cameras that have virtual fan capabilities placed above home plate, centerfield, first base and third base.
"No one would have anticipated this need six months ago," Silver Spoon Animation executive producer Laura Herzing told USA TODAY Sports. Over the course of three months, Silver Spoon has combined their specialties of augmented and 3-D reality to create virtual crowds using technology they have been developing for years. "We have created all of the outfits [for the fans] for each team and they can be changed on the fly."
Silver Spoon can also control how dense or sparse the audience is throughout the game in real-time. The fans in the stands will resemble and move like real people and are fully customizable. They will have the ability to cheer and boo.
A two-person team will be integrated into existing Fox broadcasting teams, operating the virtual fans in the stands from Fox broadcasting trucks with assistance from the Silver Spoon Animation headquarters in Brooklyn.
Herzing and her team hope to bring a sense of normalcy to the game for at-home viewers. They are also having conversations with other networks to bring this technology to more events in the future.
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