Baseball is back — with virtual crowds to fill up empty stadiums

After months of uncertainty, baseball is finally starting back up again — but this time the stadiums will look much different than we are used to. 

Fox Sports will add “virtual fans” to its Major League Baseball (MLB) game broadcasts, starting when the Milwaukee Brewers take on the Chicago Cubs at 10 a.m. PT on Saturday, July 25. The lifelike fans are made a reality in collaboration with Silver Spoon Animation and SMT by using pixotope software to create photorealistic graphics. 

The MLB season officially starts today, July 23, about four months after the season was originally scheduled to begin in lateMarch. To fans watching from home, games won’t look much different thanks to the new technology, but the stands will remain empty in reality, and no one will be catching any foul balls. 

Other professional sports leagues are scheduled to start playing again, and there have been plenty of creative ways to solve the problem of empty stadiums. Japanese firm Yamaha came up with the idea of using an app and a bunch of loudspeakers to fill a venue with the noise of fans while you’re watching from home. Fans can tap on a number of preset responses offered on the app, such as applause, cheers, and jeers, to express their feelings as the game unfolds. 

Televised Premier League soccer matches were augmented with digital crowd noise, despite the empty seats still being shown on the screen.

A baseball team in Japan even used Boston Dynamics robots to bring some life to its empty stadiums by providing midgame entertainment for fans watching at home.

While the camaraderie of being around other devoted fans cheering on your team is an essential part of the sports game experience, a survey by ESPN in May suggested U.S. sports fans are cool with watching televised events without spectators.

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