Japan leaning on virtual reality in quest for second softball gold

UENO Yukiko #17 (top) of Japan and her teammates celebrate their 3-1 win against the United States during the women's grand final gold medal softball at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
UENO Yukiko #17 (top) of Japan and her teammates celebrate their 3-1 win against the United States during the women's grand final gold medal softball at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Determined to beat the United States on home soil at Tokyo 2020, Japanese softball head to the country's forefront of VR technology.

The reigning Olympic Softball champions are up and running again as UTSUGI Reika’s Japan held a training camp last week after a sleepy nine-month layoff forced by COVID-19.

Especially with the Games on home soil next summer, where softball rejoins to the Olympic programme, hopes of another gold medal remain high for Japan, who expect nothing less themselves.

“Our mission is to win a gold medal,” ace UENO Yukiko told reporters during the camp at Yokohama Stadium, the Olympic softball venue for the Tokyo 2020 Games.

In trying to accomplish that mission, Japan have been turning to a resource they did not have for Beijing 2008 where they beat the United States for the gold.

They’re calling it the Sports Brain Science Project.

JPN v USA (Gold Medal Match) - Softball | Beijing 2008
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Softball, meet VR

Since 2017, the Japan Softball Association (JSA), in conjunction with NTT Communication Science Laboratories, have been using virtual reality to try to gain an edge on the opposition.

While the JSA had been employing analytics-based strategy, gold-determined officials took it to a whole another level.

Wearing VR headsets, the Japanese ballplayers take batting and pitching practice using actual imagery and real-time stats of any opponent they want - including the United States, who are widely tipped to contend against Japan at Tokyo 2020.

Twelve years ago in Beijing, Japan dethroned the then three-time defending champions to win their first gold in softball.

“We have all the info on the U.S. pitchers," NTT senior research scientist Yamaguchi Masumi said to the Sports Nippon.

“We will put it all together in time for the Games."

UENO Yukiko #17  of Japan pitches against Puerto Rico during the Play-off Round at the 2018 WBSC Women's Softball World Championship (Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)
UENO Yukiko #17 of Japan pitches against Puerto Rico during the Play-off Round at the 2018 WBSC Women's Softball World Championship (Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)
2018 Getty Images

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”

The technology is alarmingly accurate with intel and analysis provided from the Japan High Performance Sports Center, the training mecca for Japanese athletes.

In 2019, researchers from the lab spent 50 days with the national team to help translate the data into performance, according to Kyodo News.

With the use of multiple high-speed cameras, the lab has been able to virtually recreate details like batting swings and pitch tunnels and velocity.

VR is also proving to be handy in the time of the global pandemic when live competition has become a premium.

While there is no substitute for actual games, the project has enabled players to keep it real - or as close to real as it can get.

“The pitcher seems like she’s right in front of your eyes," Japan captain YAMADA Eri told Sports Nippon.

“The trajectory is as you would expect it and feels like a real game."

KASHINO Makio, who heads the project, said he could not be happier if Japan were to defend the Olympic title with practical application of the technology from his lab.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Kashino said. “If we can contribute to a gold medal at Tokyo 2020, there would be no greater joy."

The first softball game at Tokyo 2020 will see Japan host Australia in Fukushima, two days before the Opening Ceremony at the 23 July-8 August Games.

The final is on 27 July in Yokohama.