Alabama student's software calls balls & strikes with a smartphone
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Sports entertainment company Sportvision first introduced K-Zone, a sophisticated computer system that tracks the trajectory of a baseball relative to the strike zone, in 2001. The final product is a three-dimensional graphic overlay in the shape of the strike zone that ESPN broadcasts live.
PA’s capabilities, meanwhile, rely entirely on computer vision-based technology that is already built into smartphone cameras and many other handheld cameras like GoPros. Any camera that shoots in 1080p resolution and 60 frames per second meets the needs of the software, Bowen said.
The system tracks a pitch’s velocity, flight path and location in the strike zone. Accurately discerning a thrown pitch’s velocity was critical in the success of the rest of system’s functionality. “If the velocity’s not right, it’s crap,” Bowen said. “Having the velocity was essential.”
Beyond direct metrics, PA’s online database hosts user data and allows for quantitative analysis over an extended period of time.
Bowen partnered with computer science professor Jeff Gray in 2014 through an emerging scholars program sponsored by the university.
Since then, four collaborators have worked to polish a college project into the finished product that can serve as a virtual umpire. Bowen’s brother, Will, a Alabama aerospace engineering grad, manages the mathematics and physics that make the protocol tick. Two of Bowen’s computer science classmates, Jacob Zarobsky,and Andrew White, created and maintain PA’s web presence and online database. PA Software filed as a business entity in Feb. 2015 and officially released its first product to market this August.
PA’s initial product offering, Pitch Analyzer 2016R1, is a desktop application and sells for $29.99.
Some of the technology that tracks advanced data in the MLB and MILB is already available to the general public, but at a substantially higher price point. TrackMan, a Danish company established in 2003, created a system that uses 3D Doppler technology to track the velocity, trajectory, spin rate and other metrics of a baseball while it is in the field of play. TrackMan has not publicized the exact price of the baseball system on the company website, but its golf counterpart is advertised at nearly $20,000.
“Really what we’re doing is trying to take that multimillion-dollar K-Zone system and bring it down to the consumer level. That’s really what the goal was,” Bowen said. “Just seeing a kid in their backyard being able to see the flight path of the ball, that’s really what it’s all about.”
The company is in the alpha stages on an iOS application that will mimic the capabilities of its desktop counterpart, but require no external hardware. The team tentatively plans for a mid-December beta release, Bowen said.
Next steps include getting the PA system in use behind the plate in a real-game situation as well as using the software to benefit hitters, Bowen said. But before that can happen, PA will need to grow the company and most likely enlist some outside help.
“It’s way over our heads,” Bowen said, “but somehow we’re pulling it off.”