Play Ball
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 7 (July 2009)

Play Ball

Athletes pictured on baseball cards spring to animated life thanks to cutting-edge technology.

For almost 60 years, children of all ages have been collecting Topps baseball cards, each sporting a photo of a player, a facsimile of his autograph, and statistical and biographical information. In addition, each pack contained a piece of chewing gum—originally, the objective of packaging baseball cards with the gum was to sell more gum.

The combination of bubblegum and baseball cards became very attractive for young kids, particularly boys, and it didn’t take long for the cards to become the primary prize. So much so that, in 1992, Topps stopped adding the pink stick to the pack, much to the relief of card collectors who wanted to keep their investments free of stains and gum residue.

Certain cards, particularly those of rookie players who later became superstars, have come to be worth a lot of money. As a result, the sport of collecting cards has transformed into big business. Nevertheless, plenty of youngsters still enjoy the relatively inexpensive hobby of collecting and trading these paper icons, with the goal of obtaining cards featuring their favorite players or teams.

Today, little has changed in terms of this ritual. Yet, so much has changed. This past spring, The Topps Company launched a game-changing addition to the Topps 2009 Baseball Series packs by pairing them up with augmented reality technology that brings the static image of the player on the card to animated life via the collector’s computer. With the Topps 3D Live cards, fans control the action and step into the role of the major league player as the athlete digitally emerges from the card ready to play by pitching, batting, or catching his way around the computer desktop.

For Topps, the 3D Live baseball trading cards mark a groundbreaking enhancement to an American classic, delivering an unprecedented level of interactivity for card collectors of all ages. “Our vision to transform Topps into a sports media company is well under way,” said Michael Eisner, founder of The Torante Company, which owns Topps, in a press statement. “With the launch of Topps 3D Live, children and adult collectors alike will get to experience something they’ve only dreamed about: watching their favorite players come to digital life right before their eyes. With the help of our partner Total Immersion and its use of augmented reality, the physical baseball trading card is now just the beginning of the experience.”

Taking the Field

Augmented reality has been a cutting-edge computer technology for many years, “augmenting” real-world information (objects, settings, and so forth) with CG imagery in real time. At the far end of the scale, augmented reality is being used in medical and scientific research; other applications include architectural visualization, military and emergency training, and various simulations (flying and driving). Further down the line, the technology can be found at theme parks and museums, and in games. With the Topps application, Total Immersion has made the technology available at the consumer level, as virtual components are dynamically merged into a live video stream in real time.

Augmented reality technology from Total Immersion causes baseball players to spring to animated life from a static baseball card.

Late last year, Bruno Uzzan, CEO of Total Immersion, met with Topps officials, who were searching for a way to go digital, at least partially, to make the cards more dynamic—especially for youngsters who spend at least part of their time playing video games. “We started talking and had this idea that the trading cards could trigger a 3D experience with animation and immersion,” says Uzzan. The result is arguably one of the biggest innovations to baseball cards since tobacco and confectionery companies introduced them in the late 1800s.

In addition to the traditional cards, each pack of Topps 2009 Baseball Series 1 and 2 cards (and the new Topps Attax baseball-card game) contains an augmented reality trading card that has a special interactive “code.” To “call up” players, collectors log on to the Web site, enter the 3D Live section, and select the player who appears on the special card. Next, the person presents the card to the computer webcam to trigger the application. The Total Immersion solution, built solely using the company’s D’Fusion technology, recognizes the card, and the application superimposes on the card a 3D version of the player, which appears on the computer screen.

As Uzzan points out, there is no bar code, markers, or trackers on the physical card; the special card looks just like all the others in the pack. “When we began working with Topps, the cards had been printed already,” he says. “The application just has to recognize some physical aspect. That is the secret of our solution. We do not need any special information for the application to work.”

When the 3D player appears, the gameplay can begin. “You put the card on your desk so the webcam can still see it, and then by hitting certain computer keys, you can play the 3D game as that athlete,” explains Uzzan. Three different games, or activities, can be triggered by the augmented reality application—batting, pitching, or catching—depending on the forte of the player depicted on the card.

Making Players

To date, Topps has selected 55 players whose cards can be activated. To create 3D versions of these athletes for this application, Total Immersion began with basic 3D head models provided by Topps and the Major League Baseball Players Association. (MLBPA possesses such assets and then licenses them to video game companies and other entities.) Although the models were not fully textured, they gave the Total Immersion artists a significant head start in the content creation process.

Using Autodesk’s Maya, the digital artists textured the heads and reduced the polygon count so they would work in the real-time environment. The modelers then crafted a generic body onto which they would fuse the detailed head geometries. Then, they customized each player, adding a team-specific uniform. “The players look fairly authentic. If you know what they look like in real life, you can recognize which player you are holding,” says Uzzan.

Lastly, the art team used Maya to generate the three animations that are linked to the gaming aspect of the player.

Once the card is activated the player comes to animated life, and the collect can play virtual ball with the Major Leaguer—batting, pitching, or catching, depending on the depicted players expertise.

Total Immersion has created a wide range of applications using its D’Fusion software, including those presented at this year’s CES show (see “At Home with Augmented Reality,” February 2009). But what made the Topps application particularly challenging was the fact that it had to work on just about any type of home PC or Mac. “It was the first massive online project that we did, and we had to generate a plug-in that would get this real-time solution working perfectly for almost any computer or machine,” Uzzan says. While the exact minimum hardware requirements are listed on the Topps Web site, Uzzan maintains that the application will work on just about any computer that is no more than two or three years old.

The technology firm is currently working with Topps on another application—“something very special,” Uzzan promises.

For now, though, it looks like Topps has hit a home run with the interactive trading cards. “Kids and others are searching for more interactivity, more engaging experiences,” says Uzzan. “For Topps, that was an issue concerning the traditional baseball cards.”  

Uzzan continues: “So here we have an American icon, the baseball card, which has been known, loved, and essentially unchanged since 1869. Marrying augmented reality to the mainstay consumer product of the national pastime just feels right. Fans and collectors have always felt an emotional connection to their cards, wanting to get up close and personal with their favorite players. Now, with Topps 3D Live, that relationship enters an entirely different dimension.”

For Topps and Total Immersion, this concept has been a game well played.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of Computer Graphics World.