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ESPN Takes Flight for Home Run Derby

Anything that saves us valuable seconds - instant messaging, instant coffee - propels progress. And on Monday's Home Run Derby - often cable TV's highest-rated summer event - ESPN debuts this time saver: on-screen graphics projecting whether balls in flight will end up as homers.

Such network projections can't be based on exit polls. ESPN, which will formally introduce its Ball Track coverage today, will use Doppler radar that's been used to track missile systems. Now, it will allow for superimposed ESPN onscreen comet tails behind balls that will turn green to project flying balls as homers. Anthony Bailey, ESPN vice president for emerging technology, says Ball Track also will show live a running total of how many feet the still-flying balls have traveled. While ESPN used to take a tedious 30 seconds to figure out final home run distances, viewers now will get them instantly - and calculations of how far homers would have gone if not inconveniently impeded by a stadium.

Bailey says the radar isn't complicated - setting up the necessary box behind home plate at press-box level takes 10 minutes - and ESPN is looking at using it in games. Tracking base-runners wouldn't work - players don't run fast enough for radar.

Bailey says ESPN will open an innovation lab at Disney World in September, partly to let park goers become instant focus groups for its experiments. One idea in the works, he says, is having live postgame interviews with players who appear virtually in studios so they'd have more intimate conversations with anchors.

How about the cost-saving idea of replacing ESPN anchors with, say, robots? Says Bailey: "It'd be easier to replace players with robots. Then our (TV) rights fees would go down."

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