Sports Nut

Glass Hole

Why MLB fans should lament the failure of Google Glass.

An attendee wears a Google Glass
Ready for Opening Day? An attendee wears Google Glass during the Google I/O Developers Conference on June 25, 2014, in San Francisco.

Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images

The consumer tech world received a jolt in January when the Wall Street Journal reported that Google executives were freezing all sales of its futuristically goofy wearable device known as Glass and, perhaps as dramatically, removing its development from Google X, the company’s hush-hush research wing. The plan was to churn out a new version that, presumably, wouldn’t make old essays about future privacy concerns seem eerily prescient.

Many declared this the death knell for Glass, but last month Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said that the media were conflating a shift in the project with its cancellation and that Glass continues to be “a big and very fundamental platform for Google.” Yet, Schmidt’s rationale for having pulled the device in the first place was not encouraging. He said the company still needed to make the product—which had already been on the market for two years—“ready for users.”

I’ve never had the opportunity to experience Glass firsthand, but the provisional loss of Glass saddened me on a couple of levels. I had always imagined uses for Glass that my ordinary array of daily gadgetry couldn’t boast. I have a young son, just older than 18 months, and he’s always making funny faces or saying weird things. I’d love to get this on video, but I’m never prepared; the moment usually passes by the time I get my iPhone ready. Glass—hands-free, only semi-intrusive—always seemed like it could handle that.

The other reason word of Glass’ hiatus got me down was because of what’s starting up again this week: Major League Baseball. In its use of technology, professional baseball is by far the most advanced sport in the world—its pioneering use of video streaming is changing entire industries beyond baseball and new efforts like Statcast will dissect the sport as never before—and Google Glass offered the promise to completely revolutionize the fans’ game-watching experience for the better.

When Glass was first unveiled in 2012, it was easy for me to see the applicable uses in athletics. Not just from a parental standpoint—imagine being able to film your kids’ soccer game and clap for their goals at the same time!—but from the perspective of an avid sports fan who wanted to be able to sit in the stands and watch while also being able to understand what I was seeing with more clarity than ever before possible.

Glass was supposed to deliver all that, and the most obvious application was baseball. Almost every other major sport moves with an unpredictability and natural fluidity that renders it very difficult, from an engineering standpoint, to relay real-time tracking information. Only now have professional basketball and soccer started achieving some semblance of real progress in this regard; football, among others, still has much work to do. But baseball, much to its inherent benefit in this instance, is played in a slow and methodical manner. That’s why five years before NBA arenas had motion-capture tracking cameras installed league-wide, MLB had every stadium outfitted with cameras to analyze every pitch and an on-site statistician to ensure each pitch and play was logged timely and accurately.

Glass promised to take that all to the next level. Developed by Aaron Draczynski in about two weeks, Blue was a baseball-only Glass app that would tap into the league’s firehose of official game data and push it to your heads-up display in near real time. Instead of having to constantly stare at your phone for updated stats—say, pitch data from MLB’s At Bat app—you’d need never take your eyes away from the field with Blue. Just a slight glance to the top corner of your field of vision and all the info you’d want would be there. (The potential applications for fantasy sports fanatics is maybe even more drool-inducing.)

Baseball, often seen as stuffy and falling behind football and basketball in youth popularity, has actually been building toward this point for years. At Bat is the best-selling sports app in Apple history for good reason; it provides fast and accurate in-game information better than all its competitors. Now in its 13th year, MLB.TV—which costs about $130 for a full season of every out-of-market game in the country on multiple devices—has long been the gold standard for live sports streaming. (It even won an Emmy Award last year for technical achievement.) The sport’s owners are standing on the shoulders of the largest media company you’ve likely never heard of, though you’ve no doubt enjoyed some streaming video thanks to its infrastructure: ESPN, March Madness, the WWE Network—all of them work off of broadband supplied by MLB Advanced Media, which would be a multibillion-dollar media giant if MLB ever decided to spin it off into a public company. Next Sunday’s launch of HBO’s first streaming-only service HBO Now, with the Game of Thrones Season 5 premiere? That’s all MLBAM, too.

Baseball had been naturally evolving toward a world with Glass, thanks in part to MLBAM’s inclination to work with third parties to experiment and engineer new kinds of advanced analytics. Sportvision, a tech company nestled amongst the nondescript office buildings that dot Silicon Valley, has been working with MLB to perfect new sports technologies—specifically FIELDf/x (calculates fielding efficiency with overhead cams), COMMANDf/x (analyzes catcher framing, which is the hottest trend in sabermetrics), and HITf/x (exposes unseen batter strengths and weaknesses)—to complement its original, groundbreaking PITCHf/x, which is the graphical representation of basic gameplay you already see on the MLB app. With that suite of metrics already built and apps like Blue ready to use whatever information MLB could offer, the experience of being a fan sitting at a game and having all the information you could ever want delivered seamlessly to your eye sockets seemed fairly imminent. Now, though, that slick promo video from Blue may merely stand as proof of concept for a present day that’s been indefinitely delayed.

Blue, like any potential sports application for Glass, is in a sort of stasis, perhaps for good. A few months ago, just after the San Francisco Giants brought the third World Series title in five years to the tech capital of the world, Draczynski took a job at Facebook as a product designer. Maybe he’s building the next great in-game baseball app for Mark Zuckerberg. (The Zuck, apparently, was quite the masher back in Little League.) But whatever immersive sports app he’d be able to build adorned in Facebook-blue, it couldn’t possibly live up to the promise of Blue for Glass.

So we baseball fans—and, by some extension, all sports fans—come to mourn what might have been. Just a handful of years ago, before the iPhone became an indispensible companion in the stands, it was downright uncouth to have your head in your cellphone as the game was going on. Even attempting to make a call or hold your phone up in any visible way would often get you shouted down by your surrounding seatmates. But with these aforementioned advances, let alone the very lucrative rise of daily fantasy baseball leagues, one of the biggest of which MLB is in partnership with and fully endorses, you almost can’t get the full baseball experience without some external device at your reach.

Which is why the experience needs to be improved, streamlined from what it is now. A hands-free wearable would accomplish that, be it from Google, or Facebook, or whomever. My sincere hope is that when the Giants celebrate their upcoming home opener in front of more than 40,000 fans at AT&T Park, a significant sample of Silicon Valley tech execs or venture capital investors are in attendance and they walk away that day thinking hard about the game they could have watched rather than the one they did.